Tracey Thorn‘s career trajectory is – or surely should be – the stuff of a Hollywood movie. Shy acoustic wallflower murmurings sung from her cupboard (due to crippling stage fright); emerges through her entanglement and subsequent marriage to partner Ben Watt; all tunefully documented on albums taking in samba, sombre and string-laden paeans to modern love, loss and longing. That’s not even mentioning her being one of the defining voices of landmark trip-hop through work with Massive Attack and her ensuing rebirth as a dance-auteur collaborator. Split here over two discs, her career in music to date has been thoughtfully sequenced so there are no jarring later period clubland-inspired numbers rubbing shoulders with her more acoustic musings.
Beginning with the astute grown-up Waitrose-drama of Oh, The Divorces from 2010’s Love And Its Opposite, it documents the coffee-house conversations of straying couples. The stately string quartet arrangement seems a million miles from the house music excursions she dabbled with later in Everything But The Girl. As Thorn writes in her refreshing biography Bedsit Disco Queen, the trajectory from a femme-fronted Smiths to dabblings with the dancefloor was a wholly organic one, borne out of Watt’s DJing passion and musical experimentation rather than desperate genre-grabbing. Songs like EBTG’s Missing show an emotional narrative can deliver a punch (and their biggest ‘hit’) regardless of its setting.
Thorn has lost none of her pop nous with the recent sprightly Hormones contrasting her daughter’s and her own encounters with bodily changes at opposite ends of the spectrum. Inoffensive newie Taxi Cab successfully takes electronic elements and weaves them around a plaintive melody. From her hugely influential debut A Distant Shore come Small Town Girl and Plain Sailing, and Goodbye Joe from the same era, with naïve strummed acoustic and a rawness of talent bleeding out. From this year’s soundtrack to The Falling comes the nicely peculiar Follow Me Down, with its insistent xylophone drag.
Thorn can shed light and nuance on others’ works too, as evidenced by her covers here. Among these are Kate Bush’s Under The Ivy, Sufjan Stevens’s Sister Winter and Stephin Merritt’s (The Magnetic Fields) The Book Of Love, and her collaboration with The Unbending Trees on Overture, all of which show that the autumn shade of melancholy is where Thorn seems most at ease. The only bum note on Disc 1 comes from the ethically-sourced coffee jazz of Venceremos, which whiffs of Sting and middle-class global hopscotch.
Disc 2 is where mid-tempo dance music lives and invention dies. Tracey Thorn is not a convincing club diva; she’s too classy for that. Easy has the unenviable job of being sandwiched between the ubiquitous majesty of Protection and Better Things, the latter of which is beautifully sung but is shown to be wanting, with a wandering piano line reminiscent of Teardrop and being rather a poor facsimile of what surrounds it. Many of these collaborations seem untethered in making any connection as they become prisoners to the genre, a slave to the rhythm at the expense of emotion. See Night Time, with its cringing ‘oh-oh-oh’ vocal tropes, You Are A Lover, It’s All True, and Why Does The Wind.
As football pundits are wont to say, ‘this is a compilation of two halves’. Disc 2 is a largely inessential collection of insipid dance remixes and the Massive Attack tracks. Disc 1 is a succinct summation of Thorn’s doleful, soulful voice and writing career that gives balm and bathos to those on the sidelines that, through their bruisings, let the brasher, flasher and more empty briefly succeed, but through doing so endure and become stronger in themselves.
Thorn has always cast herself as the teller of others’ stories, but always lends an emotional clout that belies their origins. She is here revealed as an outsider observing what we all go through and refraining from offering patronizing platitudes. Instead, she lends an ear, and has a way with a tune that makes the heartbreaks worth having.