It has been eight years since Tracey Thorn released a studio album of all-new material, but in that time her profile has grown. That’s due to a consistently smart, often engaging Twitter feed and the publication of two well-received books. One of those books was a memoir called Bedsit Disco Queen. That title may have been ironic and self-effacing, but it applies to Thorn’s new album quite accurately, only minus the “bedsit” part. Record is the most electronic and danceable solo album she has made.
The album was produced by Ewan Pearson, a DJ. Pearson has worked on Thorn’s other albums, but on Record the two of them create a sound that is almost exclusively synth-driven, despite contributions from Warpaint’s rhythm section. Few are better than Pearson at creating sharp, succinct electronic music that references the past while retaining a completely contemporary feel. He delivers from the first track and single, the chugging, breezy “Queen”. As its title suggests, the track is itself a wink at Thorn’s memoir. The book’s subtitle is How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Pop Star, a reference to Thorn’s long career as half of the eclectic sophisti-pop duo Everything But the Girl.
Indeed, “Queen” finds her pondering the path her career and life would have taken had she not met the other half of that duo, her longtime partner and current husband Ben Watt. “If I’d turned instead from your bed / Am I queen… as star?” she wonders. There is something appropriately wistful about the synthesizers that come in on the second verse, and the song lays out the tone and theme of the entire album. Record is about a lot of things, but all of them have to do with growing up, looking back, and moving forward, the constant push-and-pull between time and memory, necessity and nostalgia.
Most of the time, the results are poignant, and sometimes they are stunning. “Guitar’ is a lovely bubblegum pop song that covers that timeless idea of being saved by rock ‘n’ roll, with a twist. “I thought you were cool because you played guitar,” she says of her young crush. She sees the man as “a catalyst” for her true love: “thank God I could sing, and I had my guitar.” The song highlights one of Thorn’s most compelling qualities. Her calm, often languid singing style often belies a strength and conviction. Even when she is questioning herself, Thorn is doing so on her terms, sure of who she is.
There is no questioning “Sister”, however. Musically and lyrically Record‘s strongest track, it is an eight-minute disco-funk empowerment anthem. “Don’t mess with me / Don’t hurt my babies / I’ll come for you,” Thorn warns.”You are the man, but I’m not your baby… and I fight like a girl,” she says, and the implication is clear. Watch out. Here is the wise-to-the schemes-of men young woman from EBTG’s “Each and Every One” in 1984, hardened by battle and sick of “arguing the same shit” 35 years later. It’s a defining moment.
Record also finds Thorn reflecting with hindsight on the dualities motherhood on the fantastic “Babies” (“Please, lay your pretty head down / Please, get the fuck to bed now”), and struggling to let go of her grown children on the lullaby “Go”. In the end, she manages, confessing on “Dancefloors” that “Where I’d like to be is on a dancefloor with some drinks inside of me.”
It’s refreshing to see a singer/songwriter like Thorn fully embrace such an of-the-moment retro/electronic sound without compromising or pandering in the lyric department, though she does drop a few clichés. Some listeners will find the production undercuts the message. A traditional folk song about family history and World War II (“Smoke”) certainly sounds awkward and out of place, but for the most part Record strikes a nice balance. Thorn’s voice has gotten deeper and huskier with age, but those developments work well to underscore what is newfound confidence, even brashness.
We parents out there can only hope we turn out to be as effortlessly cool, not to mention badass, as Tracey Thorn.