This week has a featured artist in Tracey Thorn. Today a review of her new album, on Wednesday a jump back to an interview with her more than a decade ago when she returned to making music, and on Friday a fresh interview with her about how Record is the feminist dance pop album with a Leonard Cohen reference for our time. Indulge.
To matters socio-political, domestic, sexual, age-related and familial soon – for Tracey Thorn’s new album is brimming with them – but first let’s make a few things clear: Record is a lot of fun, rich with variety and possessing a not-so-secret weapon.
Fun as in sing-able, memorable, hook-able. It has tunes, people, really good ones that comfortably lodge themselves in your head and stay for the duration. Pop lives on.
While Go takes a nagging, minimal but clinging melody that has its roots in Thorn’s career going back to the Marine Girls, the pulse-to-quiet-exultation of Queen, the build-up both in the move from verse to chorus and the accumulation of instruments and sounds that never gets louder but seems to make you taller, faster and happier, is one long hook.
Fun too as in danceable: several times you will be teleported back to nights in semi-lit clubs, or in Babies, maybe that dream you had of not just owning a soft-top but wearing the Raybans and pulling out on the highway bound for a horizon shimmering in blazing sun.
(Surely I won’t be the only person who will hear this and not think of/hope for Bruce Springsteen covering this one day on a tour focusing on Tunnel Of Love songs.)
Variety as in being at different times electronic, acoustic, punchy, mellow, richly adorned: dipped in ‘80s pop sounds (Smoke may have emerged from China Crisis, and Air is a reminder of mid-period Everything But The Girl); harking to ‘70s soul in her voice (why have I never noticed the influence of Gladys Knight on Thorn before?); nodding to ‘90s atmospherics (the slowly spinning out Sister, which imagines Sade taking guest vocals on a Massive Attack tribute to Grace Jones); and even the 2000s return of synth pop (the not entirely self-explanatory Dancefloor).
The not-so-secret weapon? Thorn’s voice, of course. With its depth and ability to roll along as if pulled in with the tide, its clarity and its warmth, it can make Face a safe haven, cocooning you from anything harsh outside, even as it tells a tough tale of romantic dissolution.
Yet it can also carry a little current of wry amusement as it relates some less than stellar behaviour in Guitar, or switch to high and Sinead O’Connor-like in Go without losing traction.
The lyrical landscape of Record is, like the single-word song titles and (mostly) short tracks, uncluttered by ambiguity and direct in its delivery. As with Laura Marling’s Semper Femina album of 2017, this is a record about, drawn from, and principally made for, women.
Which isn’t to say it’s not welcoming or understandable by men; far from it in fact, unless you have the emotional grasp and self-pitying lurch of a Mark Latham, Piers Morgan or any male Trump.
Rather, it takes as a starting point the experiences of Thorn, the generation preceding her, and the generation succeeding her, and from there argues that hope is anything but lost, even in the face of a world of Lathams, Morgans and Trumps.
There’s the boyfriend who introduced her to playing the guitar among her hero worshipping of him (after all, he was cool, he played guitar) before taking off like a scared boy, his legacy nonetheless the beginnings of a musical life that plays out in Guitar.
Or the women in Smoke who watched the bodies blown to bits in the Blitz, escaped London for cleaner/greener towns, and spawned offspring who were seduced back to the city by the (mostly false) dream of a non-judgmental, smarter world. And the alternative lives unlived in Queen, which applies Sliding Doors to a series of decisions that are neither good nor bad, just, well, changing everything.
Then there’s the way, in Babies, children seem abstract and maybe unwanted until that moment when “nothing else would do”, and then you spend the years afterwards worrying about them not sleeping at 3am, not home at 3am, not your responsibility anymore at 3am.
The culmination of these idea is in the expansive, Jamaica-meets-Low Counties, immediately momentum-building, eight minutes-plus, Sister, which has an even longer original version/remix available that heads to 11 minutes and doesn’t lose a second of interest.
Here, Thorn and Corrine Bailey Rae on top, and Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa and Jenny Lee Lindberg as the distaff Sly-and-Robbie rhythm section beneath (with the notable contribution of beatsmeister and co-producer Ewan Pearson), play out a line of thinking which not only says no fucks given anymore, but draws strength and solidarity from the courage of those who kicked against the pricks before, and the fearlessness of those on the way up.
Sister was written and recorded long before the Parkland school shootings this month, and the student-led campaign to reform gun laws in the USA which has followed. However, you can imagine the likes of Emma Gonzalez and Jaclyn Corin, two young women who are fearless in the face of a Fox/NRA assault, being exactly who Thorn had in mind as a “sister [who will proudly] fight like a girl” against “the same old shit”.
And as Record suggests, they could have fun while doing so.