It’s been six long years since we last heard from Beth Orton. In that time, she’s got married, had two children, seriously considered giving up music to go back to University, and was given guitar lessons from the legendary late Bert Jansch.
Although from the first note of Magpie, the opening track of Sugaring Season, it’s like she’s never been away. Orton may no longer be the queen of the post-rave comedown, but her fifth album is a natural, comforting progression from 2006’s Comfort Of Strangers.
The awful ‘folktronica’ tag she was somehow saddled with at the start of her career is no longer relevant – although links with her past remain (Tom Rowlands of The Chemical Brothers co-writes one song), Sugaring Season’s overal sound is pastoral, with strings and acoustic guitar forming the backdrop for Orton’s haunting songs. Magpie, a slowly building ballad, may not be the most immediate opener but it’s a great showcase for Orton’s voice, which remains as beguiling as ever.
There’s certainly a more rootsy, almost Americana influence on this album (perhaps as a result of Jansch’s influence) than previously. Call Me The Breeze manages to be both gently lilting and a terrific hoedown, while Orton’s husband, US folk singer Sam Amidon, adds a new dimension to her band with some excellent banjo playing. She never quite forgets her British roots though, especially when rearranging a William Blake poem in Poison Tree.
There are moments where the songwriting isn’t as strong as it could be – Something More Beautiful, co-written with M Ward, almost floats away it’s so light – while See Through Blue, although an admittedly touching ode to her daughter, almost crosses the line into tweeness territory. However, when she hits form, Orton can still knock you sideways: Last Leaves Of Autumn is an utterly gorgeous ballad, and perhaps the most immediate song, Dawn Chorus, has a nicely confident swing to it.
Those wanting to get into the mind of Orton will be left disappointed – the majority of her lyrics remain cryptic and oblique, with only See Through Blue being explicitly personal. That’s no criticism though, for with Orton, it’s all about the atmosphere she can conjure up: take Candle, for instance, which was actually a rehearsal take, recorded without the band’s knowledge. It’s a song that sounds all the better for its unconstrained, effortless live atmosphere.
There’s an understated, delicate air to much of Sugaring Season – as if Orton’s slowly dipping her toe back into the world of the music industry. And, like swimming outdoors, the initially chilly feeling soon gives way to a warm and comforting glow that’s hard to stay away from. A great comeback from an artist who’s been away for far too long.