It’s pretty hard to remember a time before the work of Tracey Thorn wasn’t somewhere in my brain. On checking the facts I must have become aware of her in 1982. Here we are 36 years later and remarkably she’s still able to draw me into her world, this time via her latest solo album “Record”.
Initially my interest was sparked through her participation in The Marine Girls via John Peel (of course). Then in rapid succession we were treated to her devastating solo album “A Distant Shore” and the debut release from Everything But The Girl her partnership with Ben Watt, through a delightfully gentle version of the Cole Porter classic, Night And Day.
Possessing an achingly moving and emotive voice, it was clear that Tracy Thorn needed to be listened to. On listening to that voice, it then became clear that she was also a wondrous songwriter as well. To have songs such as Plain Sailing under your belt at the age twenty was little short of staggering.
Soon Everything But The Girl became the dominant way we would get to hear her work, very fine work it was as well. Now and agin though she would pop up on other peoples records. The Stye Council, The Go-Betweens, Working Week and Lloyd Cole all benefitted from the addition of her voice.
Then in a nice touch of symmetry for many Bristol folk, she worked with local heroes Massive Attack. One of whom (Grant Marshall or Daddy G as he is more widely known) used to work in legendary Bristol music store Revolver Records, the same store where I, and many others purchased those early records from Tracey in her various guises. One of they tracks from those sessions - Protection, remains a high point in the Massive Attack catalogue. A fantastically bold and engaging lyric from Tracey Thorn, delivered with a determined and steely beauty vocal, was the perfect fit for the sparse soundtrack provided by the Massive Attack collective.
It was clear by this point, indeed well before that that Tracey Thorn was a major talent. Oddly it had taken Everything But The Girl until 1989 to have their first proper hit single, with their cover of “I don’t want to talk about it”. I remember the mixed emotions of that time well. Delight for them, that they had finally made a breakthrough that their work over many albums had deserved. This though was couple with despair that it was cover version that finally kicked the door open to chart success. Tracey and Ben had written so many brilliantly observed, sensitive, clever and joyous songs which flatly refused to make it in into the top 40. Here they were at last but with a song that many of my generation associated with Rod Stewart, it just wasn’t right!
There was a long gap after Plain Sailing before another Tracey Thorn solo album would emerge. Then between 2007 and 2012, three albums emerged. During the gap between these first two solo albums Everything But The Girl had released eleven studio albums and established a large world wife fanbase, before going quiet at the end of the last century. After the 2012 Christmas album “Tinsel and Lights”, there was an EP of songs for the film “The Falling”, then a musical silence dropped again
We did though receive another treat, when Tracey Thorn turned author. Producing a couple of insightful, engaging and nicely self deprecating works on her life and approach to singing. We attended a couple of launch events around the releases of these books, and it seemed pretty likely that we wouldn’t be hearing another record under her name. There was a nice collaboration with the brilliant Jens Lekman and also one with Jon Grant. We assumed that this would be the way things were. Luckily we were wrong and few weeks ago a new Tracey Thorn album was released. “Record” finds her in great voice and with some of the the strongest songs that she has has ever written.
The album is bright and sparkles with life thanks to it’s lovey electro sheen. Thorn herself has described the album as “nine feminist bangers” and she should know. One of the things that I really like about the album is that each song feels confident in it’s own place, this means that we don’t get the standard record full of songs clocking it around 4:51, with exactly the same structure. Four of the tracks clocking in at around 3 minutes or less, getting to the point directly and moving on. It’s like we are back in 1978, which is really refreshing.
On the other side of the coin though is what appears to be the cornerstone of the album “Sister”. This is allowed to stretch out to over 8 and a half minutes and it’s works brilliantly with the intense dubby soundscape, complete with fantastic backing vocals from Corrine Bailey Rae. Lyrically this is Thorn at her raging best, a perfect reposts to the macho culture which somehow still prevails the world around us. It’s also a perfect companion piece to the aforementioned Massive Attack collaboration “Protection”. Showcasing female strength and a refusal to be intimidated by those males who may try to do so. This though comes with the added anger of having to make the point again, 24 years later.
“Oh what year is it
Still arguing the same shit
What year is it
Same, old shit.”
It’s a angry, forceful, call to arms for all of us to change the way women are treated. The short version of the song is in the video below.
The rest of the album is packed full of brilliant observations on the topics such as being trapped in vicariously viewing the life of an ex-partner through social media. The liberation of birth control giving people the choice of when to have children and the attends sleepless nights that will ensue. Songs of letting your child move on into the world, letting them go whilst you really wish they wouldn’t. There’s a great song called smoke about the changing face of London, and the liberating force of being able to make her own music and find a voice through being taught to play guitar.
The album then ends on one of the biggest of the feminist bangers on the record, waxing lyrical about the joyous abandonment of losing yourself on the dance floor in the small hours. Musically it’s a million miles away from the sound of that first solo record but surely thats the point of making music over such a long period of time. You can’t just make the same album again and again (although many do), you need new sounds, new rhythms to frame those brilliant lyrics in a different way.
At a time when some of my former musical hero’s from the early 80’s have become something of an embarrassment - New Order squabbling very publicly over money, Morrissey being a prat of the highest order - it’s great to have someone showing us that it doesn’t have to be that way. As well as the books and the music she has produced, she also writes regularly for The New Statesman and hosts an unusually interesting and funny twitter account.
It’s brilliant to have Tracey Thorn back. “Record” is a gloriously honest and open record and it doesn’t half bang as well.
The Tracey Thorn web site has excellent links to her musical and written work.