Album of the week : Tinsel And Lights - Tracey Thorn

It’s hard to believe it’s now 30 years since Tracey Thorn’s first solo album, the little remembered A Distant Shore. Back then, she was a student at Hull University, and it was while based at that distinctly unglamorous Humberside institution that she met Ben Watt, who went on to be her partner both romantically and in her best known records with Everything But The Girl

After several years out of the music business raising twin daughters, Thorn returned to the studio in 2007 with Out Of The Woods, followed by 2010’s Love And Its Opposite, the latter signalling a switch back to Everything But The Girl’s pre-electronic roots. Her latest solo offering, Tinsel And Lights, Thorn’s wonderfully rich, soulful voice remains, at the age of 50, as lovely as ever

There’s something about the melancholy quality in her voice that would seem to make the idea of a Christmas album by her improbable. But then Tinsel and Lights is no ordinary Christmas album. It’s as singular in its choice of material as Thorn’s voice is. Produced by Ewan Pearson (who helmed 2010’s Love and Its Opposite), there’s only one standard, in ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’. The rest is compiled from material written by more contemporary composers: Randy Newman, Carol Hall, Joni Mitchell, Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside, Stephin Merritt, Ron Sexsmith, Low, Jack White, and Sufjan Stevens. Thorn also contributes a pair of fine originals. For Everything But the Girl fans, Ben Watt plays on eight of the 12 tracks

Opening track ‘Joy’ sets the tone for the album. Backed by her piano, an electric guitar, keyboards, and bass, she lays out the hard truth of Christmas for many: “You loved it as a kid/But now you need it more than you ever did…We’ll gather up our fears/And face down all the coming years/And all that they destroy/And in their face we throw our joy….”

The toughness of that spirit is more vulnerable in  Hall’s ‘Hard Candy Christmas’, but it’s unwavering. In  Sexsmith’s ‘Maybe This Christmas’ Thorn draws out what the season is supposed to mean, even in the face of human failings. ‘In the Cold Cold Night’ shifts gears as Thorn strips away the rock histrionics to get at something far more sultry and bold; it generates real adult heat

Thorn has a faultless clarity to her voice with perfect diction, tempered by a lingering ache in her lower tones that gives it real character. Her arrangements are sensitive, never more so than on ‘River’. The Joni Mitchell classic is given a pretty faithful rendition, but the mournful brass band accompaniment is a delight

Fellow 80s survivor Gartside makes a duet appearance, but not on his ‘Snow in Sun’. On Low’s ‘Taking Down the Tree’, their duet works partly because of the sharp contrast to the original’s musical arrangement (though this one is spare too) but also in the way their very different voices get at a lyric that balances sadness and near-instant nostalgia

Thorn wrote the title track, and its time-weathered wisdom is countered by the cheery arrangement. When she sings “Something almost true was in the air,” the listener is touched by notions of Christmases past that nearly lived up to their hype. Yet, when she offers the closing lines: “You kissed me in the snow and that was when/I fell in love with Christmas once again,” she turns the narrative on its head, ending in hope. It’s the closest thing to sentimentality here, but if you can’t be allowed a little indulgence at this time of the year, when can you? In Stevens’ sad, gray, ‘Sister Winter’ she sends it off with both an honesty and bravery in the face of loss that echoes the well wishing ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’

Tinsel and Lights is as emotionally complex as any recording in Thorn’s or EBTG’s catalogue. While it is a meditation on Christmas, it makes no attempt to manipulate the listener’s feelings. Instead, with its sheer musical quality, and the depth of tenderness and empathy in Thorn’s voice, it highlights the season’s complexities in the face of everyday life

Buy it here

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