Sunday, August 15, 2010

Tracey Thorn — Love and its Opposite

When Tracey Thorn released Out of the Woods in 2007, it was a bit of a shock because Everything But the Girl had been dormant for over half a decade and the last solo album that she released was twenty five years prior. Considering the wealth of music released between her first and second solo albums, it would be unfair to compare 1982's sparse and quietly revelatory A Distant Shore with what was basically a stopgap Everything But the Girl album. With still no action from Everything But the Girl in the new millennium, it was another shock that a third Tracey Thorn solo album was announced.

And it's even more of a shock when Love and its Opposite starts out with two songs that could only be described as melancholy ballads arranged in a classic vocal pop style. As surprising as they are, 'Oh, the Divorces' and 'Long White Dress' can't be accused of setting up a false expectation for the rest of the album. In stark contrast to Out of the Woods, which was heavy on the synths and sequencers, Love and its Opposite is a much more organic affair that, in a nearly unbelievably awesome move, prominently features Tracey's sparse, layered guitar playing and a live string section on a majority of the album.

And, much like A Distant Shore, it's a short album: ten songs, thirty five minutes. The topics covered are a lot like Tracey's subjects throughout her career: the desperate search for love in a world that she's become very cynical about. The running theme here, if there is one, is that of mid-life change. Specifically, the dissolution of a long time relationship. I have no idea what's going on with her and Ben, but it's hard to think there's not trouble in paradise when she's writing songs like 'Singles Bar.' Or perhaps their recent marriage after decades of being together has forced her to self-evaluate and explore alternate possibilities.

Whatever the case, there is a bit of feeling to the album of personal revelation. The stark, dissonantly gorgeous 'Kentish Town' is a sort of mini-autobiography that finds Tracey reminiscing "I stood where you stood" as if the 'you' she speaks of is long gone — emotionally, that is. Along with the near cinematic scope of the tune, it also —perhaps purposely— bares a striking resemblance to A Distant Shore. Elsewhere, on the equally as sparse 'Come On Home To Me,' we find Tracey declaring that "love can die and never know what it might have been." So, there's not a whole lot here to cheer about, but the tunes are so well done and the album covers so much musical ground in under fourty minutes that it will demand repeat listens for full reward. From traditional pop sounding ballads ('Oh, the Divorces!' and 'Long White Dress') to jumpy little pop ditties ('Hormones' and 'Why Does the Wind?') to slow, sparse, deep album cuts ('Kentish Town,' 'You Are A Lover' and 'Late in the Afternoon'), it's kind of astonishing how well this album explores as much as it does and the short amount of time is does so in doubles its ability to impress. And, not to mention, her voice sounds as good as ever. I guess the subject matter would draw me in regardless, but that fact that the voice conveying all of it is still amazingly captivating is what seals the deal.

There is one track here that is a bittersweet ode to lifting one's spirit in times of emotional hardship and it's easily the album's highlight. Indeed, the effects-heavy arpeggio and lush block piano chords of 'Swimming' is a slice of absolutely uplifting mini-epic brilliance. It has the boombast of the best power ballads, but the presentation is modest enough for the tune's refrain lyric of "Right now we're just keeping afloat, but soon we will be swimming" to sound like an amazingly effective and genuine statement. Coming last in the album's running order, it plays like a redemptive and ultimately triumphant turn for an album whose intentions and mood were previously undefined. With 'Swimming' it becomes clear that, whatever lessons Tracey Thorn has learned —autobiographic or not— she refuses to let the negativity consume her.

Truly, I didn't even know what to think of this album when it first came out. It took me this long to even start to grasp what the tunes were trying to accomplish (also why this review took dang near three months for me write). Where in the past, her records have been great pop music that incorporated the technologies of their day, the subject has been lost because of the timeliness of the sounds, Love and its Opposite is the first record she's made in a long time —maybe even since A Distant Shore— that could be called timeless. Its mature, realistic tone only enhances its genuine quality. If Everything but the Girl is no longer active, I'm glad that the possibility of more albums from Tracey Thorn are not out of the question.

Truly mature and redemptive music.


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