The artistic evolution of Ben Watt as a soloist continues apace, and with Storm Damage he reaches his most personal document yet. Everything But The Girl may be no more, but Watt – along with wife Tracey Thorn – has if anything redoubled his creative work. Both have written frank and revealing books, and both are reaping the benefits of their life experience through intimate solo records.
As he has progressed, Watt has navigated a number of very different musical forms, mastering each with relative ease. Proving his worth through the deep house of his label Buzzin Fly, he then mixed more pastoral and wistful moods into the Hendra and Fever Dream albums before, on his fourth solo album proper, he arrives at a new ensemble of sparse textures.
Comprising piano, drums and bass, the accompaniment is lean but extremely effective. The music itself is cosmopolitan, rewarding approaches from both English and American directions. Watt’s vocals have more studio treatment this time, hinting at John Lennon, Eels or even touring mate David Gilmour in his conversational asides. Whatever the musical language, though, this is a deeply felt and personal album, almost uncomfortably so.
To say life events have been challenging for Watt in the last ten years would be an understatement. On the back of a life threatening illness in the 1990s, he recently lost both his brother and sister. The close proximity of those deaths have been compounded by the UK political potboiler of the last few years, meaning there is a lot to let out in the Storm Damage songwriting.
The songs soon reveal his frailties, but ultimately show great resolve in the face of adversity. Through them Watt becomes something of a musical counsellor, using the art to deal with painful images and recollections. “People say live in the moment, but the moment seems so narrow sometimes”, he observes on Balanced On A Wire. Retreat To Find explores the difficulties of bereavement, with sparse but evocative musical pictures, as “daffodils bloom by the churchyard wall, the grounds of the vicarage overgrown”.
Yet through this darkness Watt characteristically takes a positive approach. “Your face now comes to me clearly,” he sings in Knife In The Drawer. A vivid evocation of night, this intimate song is delivered in conversational tones, the singer right into the room with you. Irene, a lovely duet with Low’s Alan Sparhawk, casts its spell through the stardust sprinkled by the repeated twang of a finger-picked guitar.
You should be warned in advance that this album will leave a lump in your throat, and probably something in your eye. The prime culprit is Hand, where Watt has a deceptively simple piano line for a companion. “I wonder who’ll be there when the light starts to fail,” he asks. “Who will carry my bags when I’m weary and frail?”
The symptoms return in even greater focus with the bittersweet but rather wonderful Festival, signing off with the author in a contented place. Here, Watt subconsciously mirrors the closing track of wife Tracey’s last solo album. While Dancefloor found her celebrating the escapism of the nightclub “with some drinks inside of me”, Watt is outside, losing himself in the music while tugging on “my first fag in 10 years”. We observe his happiness from a distance, refracted through reverberant piano and a poignant viola cameo. The contentment comes with a brief but intense shot of loneliness too. “I lost all my friends hours ago, but I’ve danced and drunk with loads more I didn’t know,” he sings, before the final cathartic line, “Let go of the world, let go of you”.
Storm Damage may find Watt battered and bruised, but his response is one of recovery, demonstrating the power of music as therapy in the process. His versatility serves him incredibly well once again, and ultimately prevents the demons from bringing him down. By laying bare his troubles, Ben Watt has made his finest album yet.