“Do you sing to heal the broken hearted?” wonders Tracey Thorn with a tone of whimsical curiosity, “Or do you sing to get the party started?” Emerging from the darkness, approaching the microphone, she confesses “I like the mic, and I like the dark, I like the mood, and it lights a spark.” (Karaoke, Track 10).
It has been 24 years since Everything But The Girl were last in the spotlight. An unexpected low-key announcement on Twitter in November 2022 lit a spark with news that work on an eleventh studio album was complete and ready to be released in April of this year. The result? Fuse. A remarkable album, infused with a staggering emotional depth and poignancy that resonates with the turbulent moods and experiences of the last few years. The deft lyrical incisiveness combined with crisp, laconic sketches of modern life bestows a haunting empathy and heartfelt compassion which is profoundly moving and, at times, overwhelming.
An almost painful rawness and vulnerability form a pervading presence across all the songs on this album. The heavy dubstep beat, the tremolo bass and the lyrical references of opening track Nothing Left to Lose (Track 1) provide a seamless connection with the spirit of previous albums. Yet the despondency and resignation of the space filled by Thorn’s vocal is unmistakable: “I need a thicker skin / This pain keeps getting in.” There is also abandonment and isolation: “Tell me what to do / ‘Cause nothing works without you.” The pressing need is to forget the hollowness and lose yourself, just for a while, in the warmth of the moment: “Kiss me while the world decays / Kiss me while the music plays.”
The fear of being alone and feelings of emptiness continue with Run The Red Light (Track 2). Our hopes, our dreams of ‘making it big’ are a show bravado to cover our vulnerability. The refrain points to the (false) comfort of losing ourselves and escaping in the moment: “Run a red light / Forget the morning / This is tonight.” The chorus is recycled with both Thorn and Watt singing, the latter’s voice Auto Tuned to add a robotoic texture. The theme continues in No One Knows We’re Dancing (Track 6), a hot, noisy afternoon underground nightclub, sweat dripping from the ceiling, while ‘normal’ life continues above. Amid the isolation, we crave company, companionship, just some sense of connection with others.
The noise, the desperation, the seeming heartless indifference of the things that happen to us, threaten to consume us. Emerging from the experience of lockdown, Lost (Track 7) is a recurring arpeggio accompanying a mundane litany of losing your place, your bags, your client, your job, and your friends until, at the lowest point of all, we encounter the three times repeated “I lost my mother / I lost my mother / I lost my mother’. Loss: the feeling of being lost, is consuming. At the very place, deep down, where things matter most. Where everything is supposed to make sense.
Don’t be fooled, however. This album, the music, the songs, are most certainly not an ode to depression or a wallowing in self-pity. Far from it. Inner Space (Track 9) filters and masters Thorn’s voice to sound like the inside of her head. We are lost even to ourselves, we do not know ourselves, we do not understand who we are. “The dark is an alien place / Interior space”. But there is also defiance. In what appears to be a swipe at the menopause, she sings “And no, I don’t bleed / And yes, I am freed / But what is that worth? / Are we all about birth?”
Despite everything, the album calls on us not to give in, not to give up, not to beat ourselves up for the mistakes we make. Lost itself is a call to carry on, to keep going, to not succumb to calling yourself a loser: “I just lost it / (Call yourself a loser and they will too) / (Don’t go down that road, don’t go down that road).” When You Mess Up (Track 4) is about all the uncertainties of being ourselves as we grow older and not punishing ourselves for the mistakes we’ve made. “In a world of micro-aggressions / Little human transgressions / Forgive yourself”. Do more than that: “Have a drink, talk too loud / Be a fool in the crowd / But forgive yourself / Forgive yourself.”
Forever (Track 8) brings this home, using a ‘four-on-the-floor beat’ to punch home the message. “Do away with cruelty / Do away with pain / Do away with playing games / For short term gain.” We need to work out what is important, what matters and whom we value most. “No more games / Start thinking what you’d save from the flames / What you’ll desire / When everything’s on fire / And who’ll be around / When everything’s burned down?”
These are the things that matter. The song fades away to “Give me something I can hold on to forever.” And that, in a nutshell, is the sheer majestic strength and triumph of this album. It finds us where we are. It befriends us. It resonates with our fears, our anxieties, our troubles. It puts an arm around us and says don’t worry, life is difficult, we all struggle, and that’s ok. Everyone is going through it. You’re not the only one. Don’t be too hard on yourself; stop beating yourself up. Keep going. Focus on what matters. Oh, and don’t forget – have fun!
Musically, the crystal-clear sound stage creates cavernous spaces within which Thorn’s voice can tell the stories which brought them back to the recording studio. In the time they’ve been away, Thorn and Watt have had two children, followed solo careers, experienced lockdown all the while struggling with the passing of the years. Thorn’s voice remains incomparable, breathtaking, even better than it was. Watts’ arrangements perfectly accompany, cradle and showcase not just the inherent beauty of her voice but an instinctive feel for how less is more and how space itself is all you need for the musical magic to emerge.
Let’s finish where we started. Emerging from the darkness, approaching the microphone, Thorn asks: “Do you sing to heal the broken hearted?” A firm answer comes back: “Oh, you know I do”. She asks again: “Or do you sing to get the party started?” The definitive response comes back: “And you know I love that too.” It’s never either/or. Music can and must be both/and. Fuse is precisely how music enables both/and to become possible. It is the perfect finish to what will be, without a doubt, my album of 2023.
Video for Website
Run a Red Light: https://youtu.be/lo9b4buZCNo?list=OLAK5uy_lXCPymBj-PEvp0U2gMDWH2IBjKBbbr54g
1. Nothing Left To Lose 3:46
2. Run A Red Light 3:39
3. Caution To The Wind 4:07
4. When You Mess Up 3:48
5. Time And Time Again 2:52
6. No One Knows We’re Dancing 4:09
7. Lost 3:25
8. Forever 3:41
9. Interior Space 2:24
10. Karaoke 3:54
Tracey Thorn – Lead Vocals, Backing Vocals
Ben Watt – Drum Programming, Programmed By [Sound Programming], Piano, Synthesizer, Electric Guitar, Backing Vocals, Recorded By [Additional iPhone Recordings]
Artwork – Iwantdesign.co.uk, John Gilsenan
Mastered By – Miles Showell
Producer, Arranged By – Everything But The Girl
Recorded By, Mixed By – Bruno Ellingham
Label: Buzzin Fly Records
Format: CD, Vinyl, Digital
21st April 2023