It’s highly doubtful that Weather Alive will be Beth Orton‘s final album, but strangely, it feels like it is. While her true and proper debut, Trailer Park, came out in 1996 when she was only 25 years old, 2022’s Weather Alive sees the Norwich-bread folk artist having lived another quarter century since then, her art now grown and evolved in fascinating ways over the decades. Often thought of as the embodiment of the “folktronica” tag, Orton has shown the depth of her songwriting talents over the years, mainly ignoring easy genre classification and focusing on whatever unique pose her muse was striking at the time. There was often a guitar, sometimes a piano, but her textured voice and words were always her most compelling trait.
Now married and raising children, Weather Alive arrives after a period of tumult, with Orton having moved her family from Los Angeles back to England and experiencing seizures that were initially misdiagnosed as panic attacks. Coupled with a global pandemic and the passings of collaborator Hal Willner and Trailer Park producer Andrew Weatherall, it would be understandable if any new Orton album were a sad, languid affair.
Yet Weather Alive is a fascinating creature, one that belies easy categorization. Working with jazz drummer Tom Skinner and sax player Alabaster dePlume, Orton self-produced a record of deep atmosphere and warm tones; it sounds like morning fog receding from a beach aglow in the morning dawn. Its jazz players only give jazzy overtones to songs that don’t quite exist in the realm of folk or pop or rock. The eight tracks on Weather Alive sound like Beth Orton songs, which is a rare treat.
“I was so embarrassed to play these songs to people at first because I know how they are all just kind of strung together,” notes Orton during her interview with The Line of Best Fit. “I know that some of my processes in the editing were really rudimentary. I mean, it was mostly done in my shed.” While the album was born of several stops and false starts, it’s clear that all of Weather Alive‘s songs come from the same relaxed place, all rolling out at their own casual pace (which is why the record’s shortest number clocks in at just under 4:30).
Opening with the atmospheric title track, Orton’s voice is the first thing that jumps out of the mix. Unafraid to represent herself plainly, her ever-distinct pipes are lightly weathered now, a coarseness baked into her inflection with some tones even halting and stuttering. While her last album (the still-underrated electro experiment that was 2016’s Kidsticks) was awash in bedroom electro styles and sounds, her voice was often run through filters and echoes, which makes her so bluntly showing the state of her vocals on Weather Alive that much more pointed. Orton is not hiding behind studio tricks this time out: she’s emotionally naked at every turn. “It was just excruciating to listen to in front of other people,” she says during that Line of Best Fit interview. “Every bit of it was personal and exposing.”
Yet, for fans of Orton, Weather Alive is more than simply plumes of ethereal song structures. Tracks like “Fractals” ride a sturdy bass and piano groove to capture some of the more upbeat stylings of her earlier work, at times even reflecting the playful spirit of Kidsticks. “When anything happens / It doesn’t just happen to me / You stopped believin’ in magic / But I’m belivin’ in magic,” she coos over the album’s most upbeat section, pointing to the album’s central themes of living through times with differing beliefs.
“My love, won’t you sing for me? / Am I not your poetry?” Orton asks in the almost trip-hop throwback vibe of “Forever Young”, a deliberate echo of some of her most iconic electro-leaning favorites. She pines for her lover’s affection before opening floodgates of her own praise, locking their passion in a perfect moment. Weather Alive‘s best quality is how so many of her songs feel unresolved; the point made but the questions left unanswered. Her verses shift from pointed to empathetic, thereby changing the contextual function of some of the choruses, making for remarkably rewarding relistens, gleaning bits of new meaning each playthrough.
For example, in the pastoral shuffle of “Friday Night”, Orton’s narrator is “dreaming of Proust all in my bed / And he speaks to me in my sleep,” before falling into a languid dream where she forgets her own existence. There is much yearning for love across this album and worries of losing valuable moments. Still, even with a few deliberate minor key passages, Weather Alive feels less about pure hope than as one of beautiful acceptance, grateful for all that has transpired and all that will be.
Weather Alive will not go down as Orton’s most accessible album, but at this point in her career, her records don’t need to satisfy any one particular audience. The twinkling pianos and synths floating above the live bass and brushed percussion feel like a culmination of her past sounds and the logical next step for her sound. On the seven-minute closer “Unwritten”, Weather Alive‘s longest track, the lyrics could point to either Orton’s unconventional songwriting process or the future in front of her, yet to be told.
Let’s be blunt: given that Orton has only put out five albums over the past two decades, it’s an unknown if we’ll ever get another full-length from her, but if this ends up being her swan song, it’s a beautiful grace note to leave us on. The drifting nature of Weather Alive‘s songs may not be as immediately satisfying as the bright-eyed folk-pop she flirted with in her earlier years. Still, this album unabashedly feels like the record she needed to make now, and we all feel more Alive because of it.