Tracey Thorn: “I fell in love with Christmas once again”

In 1991, on the ‘Worldwide’ album, Tracey Thorn sang: ‘I’ve never been skating on a frozen river, Joni and Jane make it sound so cool’.

With those words, Thorn tipped the wink that she knew and loved the Joni Mitchell song ‘River’ (from the album ‘Blue’). Tipped a wink and hinted at a pledge that she has now delivered, with her own sublime brass band version of ‘River’ on her new Christmas album, ‘Tinsel and Lights’.

Very fine it is indeed, which will not surprise anyone familiar with Thorn’s work, whether in the band ‘Everything But The Girl’, or as a solo singer. She has always had the voice of a shopworn angel; rough and silky smooth at once, like the best whisky.

Back in the 1980s, I’m not sure we fully appreciated the riches we had in terms of British female singers. Three always stood out for me; Kate Bush, Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins, and Tracey Thorn. In each case the passing years have been kind to them. Either they have pulled off the trick of continuing to make interesting music to add to the fine work they did in the eighties. Or else, from this distance, that music sounds better and more important as time passes.

I’d put Kate Bush in the first category. The peaks she scaled in the eighties still look and sound as impressive as they did then; nothing surpasses the pure bonkers thrill of songs like ‘Hounds of Love’ or ‘The Dreaming’. But some of the very earliest albums now sound a little weedy, and even some of her eighties stuff can sound a bit dated, with the synthesised drums so emblematic of the decade that taste forgot.

So what confirms Kate Bush’s greatness is her success in coming back after a 12 year absence with the grown-up triumph of ‘Aerial’, which still (seven years later) sounds better every time I hear it. She then, more recently, confounded expectations further by producing two albums in a year. (Including a Christmas album – good, but not as good as Thorn’s).

Elizabeth Fraser belongs in my second category, not least because I carelessly contrived to miss most of the Cocteau Twins output when they were active. I had one of their very early albums on a cassette, and it was a bit of a mess, no cause for a revelation. Somehow that came more recently, when I finally delved into the Cocteau back catalogue.

The years have been kind to the music they issued from what appears to have been some kind of hermetically-sealed universe of sound: the whoops and nursery-rhyme nonsense of the singing, the crunching Phil Spectoresque drums of ‘Treasure’, the guitar playing that could sweep in one song from delicate picking to huge, industrial sheets of noise. They sound like no one else, but their influence is written into the DNA of so much music made later.

Fraser has released little music since she escaped the claustrophobic grip of the Cocteaus in the mid-nineties. It would be lovely to hear her back, but whatever she does the Cocteau legacy stands the test of time. Check out ‘Treasure’ or ‘Blue Bell Knoll’.

Tracey Thorn is in her own middle category.  Some people felt Everything But The Girl veered too close to wine bar muzak, but to my ears most of their stuff still stands up well. I confess I’m sentimentally biased; the bruised longing of songs like ‘Meet Me In The Morning’ and ‘Shadow on a Harvest Moon’ soundtracked my romance with the woman I’m now married to, during a period when neither of us was sure we would end up together, or how much pain we would go through to get there.

And now, on top of her EBTG legacy, and after time sensibly spent focusing on other priorities like finding her children’s socks and cooking their pasta, Thorn is making music again, as a solo artist. The 2007 comeback album ‘Out of the Woods’ was immediately reassuring, practically inventing a new genre of folk electronica and proving that people in their forties could sing about grown-up stuff like parenthood and waning relationships with every ounce of the emotional impact of the boy-girl popsongs of our youth.

But, even so, a Christmas album? Isn’t that the last refuge of the artistically moribund? With most singers, the news that they were releasing a Christmas record would stir no more than a wince. For people I like, it would usually be worth a shrug – they’ve earned the right, why not indulge themselves?

But Thorn really pulls it off, in a style consistent with a theme that has always been in her music, growing stronger with age and experience: the difficulty of sustaining love through the years, and the enduring importance of those near to you, when it’s so easy to take them for granted in a world of complication, conflict and temptation.

The Christmas season these days is too pumped up with commercialism. But there is usually a moment, perhaps lasting only a couple of days, when the holiday spirit comes through. You finish up at work, start planning the cooking and wrapping presents. Ideally, the weather turns cold and clear, and if you have children, their excitement at last gets through to you. It’s a time for turning inwards, reflecting on the year past and wondering about the year to come, shedding the things that keep you busy most of the time and finding the time and space to cherish those closest to you. Pausing in the midst of winter to remind yourself how lucky you are to have them, the people that it is too easy to take for granted.

Typically, Thorn nails this thought with the first lines on the record:

“When someone very dear, calls you with the words ‘everything’s all clear/It’s what you want to hear, but you know it might be different in the new year/That’s why, that’s why we hang the lights so high”

I guess nothing will ever quite top the Phil Spector Christmas album. But this year it has a rival.

And it’s still only November!

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3 Comments

Filed under Music

3 responses to “Tracey Thorn: “I fell in love with Christmas once again”

  1. hodsopa

    Nice post. I got one of her songs on a free CD with a French magazine yesterday, will listen closer.

    Re the writing: I don’t know if you want feedback but if you do it is CUT.

    Eg

    “and now, on top of her EBTG legacy, and after time sensibly spent focusing on other priorities like finding her childrens socks and cooking their pasta,”

    would in my view be even better (and funnier) as

    “and now, on top of her EBTG legacy, and after time sensibly spent focusing on other priorities like finding her childrens socks,”

    Love P

  2. I’ve been distracted by all the celebs bringing out autobiographies for christmas – I never stopped to think the same thing happens with albums.
    I like that line about your kids’ excitement getting through to you. I have been wondering if I’ve turned into scrouge completely, or that if I had kids, I would still get excited about Christmas, rather than being depressed about how commercial it has got.

  3. Kevin

    Thank you for bringing attention to Tracey Thorn’s lovely and bracing album. It represents a gradual maturing from her earlier work with EBTG. I want to bring to your attention a possible additional interpretation to the line from Frozen River that you quote, “Joni and Jane make it sound so cool.” I am pretty sure the Jane referred to is Jane Siberry, whose song Hockey, from her 1989 album Bound By The Beauty, starts with the line, “Winter time and the frozen river.” If you have not heard it, check it out. It is stunningly beautiful, like much of her work from that period. Can’t say for sure that Tracey is referring to that, but I think it’s a strong possibility.

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