Years ago someone told me Tracey Thorn reminded them of Chet Baker. That may sound strange, but when you think about it, the comparison makes sense. Thorn and Baker both derive their power from subtlety. They have a languid, effortlessly cool vibe to them that sometimes comes across as detached, but more often feels deeply personal.
To her vast credit, Thorn has never lost sight of this strength. She’s never played the sex kitten, the diva, or the dance club chanteuse. Therefore, she’s aged gracefully. People label Everything but the Girl, Thorn’s 15-year partnership with Ben Watt, as “electronic”, but that term describes only a portion of their career. Their most commercially successful music was electronic-leaning, but before that they explored jazz, indie-pop a’la the Smiths, Phil Spector-informed orchestral pop, and even radio-baiting, schmaltzy easy listening music. All was informed, though, by a singer-songwriter’s attention to craft, detail, and lyrics. And Thorn’s charismatically demure voice was the constant.
On Love and Its Opposite, Thorn’s second solo album following a eight-year hiatus, that voice is as appealing as ever. And, maybe for the first time, it’s the sole focus. 2007’s Out of the Woods was again informed by electronica, but this time there’s really no stylistic subtext. Producer Ewan Pearson, ironically best known for his work in the electronic realm, gives Thorn a concise backdrop made mostly of guitars, keyboards, and drums. The music is heavily atmospheric but never obtrusive. Thorn is front-and-center in the mix and the implication is very clear. Pay attention to the lyrics.
Write what you know, the experts say, and Thorn has done so here. Consequently, the ten songs on Love and Its Opposite are about the life of a middle-aged woman with kids, a husband, and keen observational skills. This is her most emotionally naked record, sometimes uncomfortably so. The middle-aged landscape, Thorn seems to be saying, is just as difficult, perplexing, and heartbreaking as the young adult one, only without the option of romanticizing the future. Love, even when attained, is tenuous and prone to second-guessing. On “Oh, The Divorces!”, the tear-jerker piano ballad of an opener, Thorn laments the broken marriages that have fallen around her. Then she turns the lens on herself. “And each time I hear who’s to part / I examine my heart…/ Wonder if it’s still in safe hands”. This very personal revelation also hits on a common truth few married folks would put right out in the open.
The very next song, “Long White Dress”, starts out like a “Walk On the Wild Side” character study: “Matthew was a wised-up kid…”. But then you realize the song is Thorn’s confession of her fear of marriage. “Nothing ever scared me like a wedding did”, she says, making clear the connection between the song’s title and the “Long Black Veil” of the mourning woman in the old murder ballad. Thorn recently did marry Watt, after a decades-old courtship during which the two had several children. The song helps explain the long wait, but it’s hardly “Love & Marriage” is it? A lot of Thorn’s past music has been touched by the warmth of nostalgia, but there’s none of that here to offer consolation. “A second or a year / Once gone is gone”, she says on “Kentish Town”. Pretty bleak.
Bleaker still, though, and more of a departure than Thorn has yet recorded, is “Come On Home To Me”, a Lee Hazelwood cover. Specifically, the song is from the eccentric, deep-throated crooner’s notoriously tragic cult classic, Requiem for an Almost Lady. It’s a stark, minor-key, almost harrowing composition whose chorus lets in just a fraction of light. Thorn plays it straight, too, with Swedish singer/songwriter Jens Lekman providing Hazelwood-like backing vocals. With little more than a reverberating celesta for accompaniment, this is the darkest, most intentionally moody track Thorn has ever recorded. You could easily mistake it for something off a Dead Can Dance or This Mortal Coil album.
For Love And Its Opposite’s least weighty, most carefree moment, you have to look to a song about menopause. Actually, “Hormones” is more about a mother’s attempt to come to terms with a teenage daughter, or at least make peace with the fact she can’t. With a relatively snappy, soulful backing and off-the-cuff feel, it’s just as touching as any of the more labored ballads, maybe more so. You wish there were more like it here. Taken individually, each of Love and Its Opposite’s songs is impressive and affecting. Strung together as an album, though, their sulky nature becomes oppressive. You’ve listened to the lyrics, and now you’re left feeling awkward and bummed out. Not all downcast albums have to be downers. This one comes a bit closer than you might like.