The gloves are off. Tracey Thorn, on her fifth solo album, has decided enough is enough, and she is telling it like it is.
Inspired, perhaps, by the recent sea changes away from suppression and abuse towards greater equality for women, she has written, in her words, “nine feminist bangers” – and clearly had a cathartic experience in the process.
Thorn, of course, doesn’t shriek or stamp – not her style. Yet if anything that means the content of the songs on Record is even more arresting. This is after all a voice that has been a regular part of the British pop music wallpaper for the last 35 years or so, and here we find it at its most emotional yet, giving an outpouring of what it feels like to be a mother, lover, sister and, above all, a fighter.
Sister, it turns out, is the centrepiece song of the album, an eight and a half minute epic given extra support by Warpaint and Corinne Bailey Rae on vocals. It is doubtful Thorn has invested as much of her heart and soul in a song as this. “Don’t mess with me, don’t hurt my babies,” she threatens, before breaking into a falsetto as she tells of how “I am a mother, I am a sister”. She digs deep to find the strength within, complaining that “I know you own the world, and I fight like a girl” – a Trump reference, perhaps – but then the song homes in on the chorus to increasingly powerful effect, and her sisters on backing vocals give her full-throated support.
Ewan Pearson’s supple productions are the ideal complement to her songs. ‘Your face is in my face’, she sings in the regretful outlines of Face, and in this song Pearson brings out a deeper, almost masculine quality to her voice, as he also does in Queen. For Smoke he sets a striking folk song against a bare, heartbeat rhythm and ghostly, sighing strings. “London you are in my blood and you’ve been there for so long”, commits the singer, before sadly admitting, “London you are in my blood but I feel you’re going wrong”. As a judgement on this day’s politics and social attitudes, it is quietly devastating.
There are more light hearted fun and games, however. Guitar recalls early meetings with Ben Watt, and how he won her over with Leonard Cohen. Babies deals frankly with the joys and pains of motherhood. “Get the fuck to bed now,” she demands, before conceding that “all the nights I paced the floor, made me love you even more”. Face inhabits more familiar territory, lamenting the power of social media to bring an ex-lover’s life right in to the room with you. In the process it proves how tasteful electronics, remain are the backdrop most suited to her voice.
After the relative angst, Dancefloor turns its thoughts back to the party. “Where I like to be,” she states, “is on the dance floor with some drinks inside of me,” capturing the carefree club setting, throwing off the shackles for pure enjoyment of music.
Record is a natural, empowering album, admitting its vulnerabilities but discovering considerable resolve within. Its one-word song titles are reflective of a newly frank and vivid songwriting, and in the process Thorn casts aside any notions of being a shrinking violet. She charms with a ballsy sense of humour, while simultaneously giving a subtle but firm ‘back off’ message to anyone who dare step out of line. It is the best and most meaningful music Tracey Thorn has made in a long time.