It’s hard to believe it’s now 30 years since Tracey Thorn’sfirst solo album, the little remembered A Distant Shore. Back then,she was a student at Hull University, and it was while based at thatdistinctly unglamorous Humberside institution that she met BenWatt, who went on to be her partner both romantically and in herbest known records with Everything But The Girl.
Over the nexttwo decades, the duo evolved their sound from inoffensive jazz-pop toclub-friendly electronica, a commercially lucrative transitioninspired by collaboration with Massive Attack on the trip-hopmaestros’ 1995 classic Protection. Yet throughout their differentguises, Thorn’s wonderfully rich, soulful voice remained the band’sfocal point, and her latest solo offering Tinsel And Lights provesthat at the age of 50 it remains as lovely as ever.
After several years out of the music business raising twindaughters, Thorn returned to the studio in 2007 with Out Of The Woods,followed by 2010’s Love And Its Opposite, the latter signalling aswitch back to Everything But The Girl’s pre-electronic roots. OnTinsel And Lights, in some ways Thorn has gone full circle, largelyeschewing her own compositions to perform a carefully selected rangeof cover versions, recalling her very first breakthrough back in 1982with a sublime reinterpretation of Cole Porter’s Night And Day.
Thorn has apparently always wanted to release a Christmas albumand, while Tinsel And Lights definitely has a seasonal feel, with theexception of that hoary old chestnut Have Yourself A Merry LittleChristmas the songs she has chosen here are decidedly contemporary,with the egregious brand of festive cheese one normally associateswith these kind of projects mercifully absent.
One of Thorn’s trademark strengths (or flaws, depending on howedgy you like your singers) has always been the effortless ease withwhich she inhabits and carries a tune. Here, she adds elegance andemotion to Stephen Merritt’s Like A Snowman, contrasting neatlythe original’s bittersweet camp; Jack White’s In The Cold ColdNight has some of the rough edges rubbed off without losing itsessential energy; and Randy Newman’s elegiac Snow is the perfectvehicle for Thorn to show off her most wistful croon.
Another highlight is a duet with fellow honey-voiced ’80ssurvivor Green Gartside of Scritti Politti onLow’s stately Taking Down The Tree, on which producer EwanPearson cannily backs the principals’ soaring vocals with the kindof shimmering, slightly tinny synthesizers that were ubiquitous whenboth were in their youth. The end result is a collaboration thatsounds like it could have been recorded at the same time as Love NotMoney or Cupid And Psyche.
Although this is an album where Thorn’s own compositions largelytake a back seat, we are served a couple of reminders of her notinconsiderable songwriting abilities on Tinsel And Lights. Openingnumber Joy is a lovely, gently building piano ballad that’s almosthymnal in its blissful simplicity, while the lilting title track is anostalgic paean to a fondly recalled Christmas in New York. Both blendseamlessly into the overall mood of the record, which is warm and cosywithout ever toppling over into sickly schmaltz.
Like much of Thorn’s output over her long career, some willdismiss Tinsel And Lights as excessively polished, bland coffee tablemusic, but rocking out has never been her style. Those who appreciatewhat she does well can recognise that in her own understated way,Thorn belongs in the pantheon of the truly great British femalesingers, and this is another worthy addition to a back catalogue ofconsistently high quality.