“To sing is to pray twice,” said St Augustine. It’s a haunting line – perhaps celebrating the miracle of human hope over any expectation of divine attention– that Tracey Thorn quotes with aching resonance on Fuse, Everything But the Girl’s first album in 24 years. It’s an album that makes a church of its elegant electronica: all vaulting arcs of yearning melody and glimmers of stained glass that dance upwards, to the familiar urban spire of Thorn’s beautiful, hangdog voice.
“I’ve always been an atheist,” Thorn wrote in a column published in the third month of the pandemic. But, taking her daily walks around a London graveyard, she found her questions and her internal dialogue with her mother (who’d been dead for a decade) beginning to feel “a bit like prayers. How long, oh lord, how long?” Perhaps it’s strange to say, but EBTG have always had a kind of lockdown mood, in the way their music seems to freeze scenes of Britain like in a strange blue-lit suspension – like Damien Hirst’s shark. On hit single “Missing” (1994), they described heartbreak on a train; on “Walking Wounded” (1996), the heartbreak takes place on the bus. A quarter of a century later – on this abum’s biggest banger, “No-One Knows We’re Dancing”, Thorne is singing about a guy driving a Fiat Cinquecento and dryly recording the lifestyle of an EU lawyer. “He does London, Paris, Munich” she sings, like a sarky Sade.
Thorn and Ben Watt – who have been together since the 1980s and married in 2009 – began working on Fuse the following spring. ‘After so much time apart professionally,” says Thorn, “there was both a friction and a natural spark in the studio when we began.” So although there’s nothing new about the band’s sound (especially not to those who’ve enjoyed Thorn’s solo records), they have a rekindled appetite for tunes that enable them to get into the murky corners of modern melancholy. There’s a strangely disconnected chiming and then a distorted effect (resonant of old internet dial-up tone) on “Lost”, as she intones: “I lost my place/ I lost my bags/ I lost my biggest client/ I lost my mother… then I just lost it.” Her voice is layered in the background as though lines are crossed.
A repeated, three-note piano motif backs “When You Mess Up”, on which Thorn delivers the Augustinian line as part of a gentle urging toward self-care. “In a world of micro-aggression/ Little human transgressions/ Forgive yourself… Have a cigarette/ Don’t think you’re inappropriate.” As the mother of grown children, I can hear a woman caught in the middle of the culture wars as her vocal soars up to the chorus of “We all mess up/ And baby, you’ll mess you”. The track fades out like whale song.
“Nothing Left To Lose” sounds like older school EBTG with its snappy, trappy, bass-squelching subterranean beats and a rich soulful vocal that finds Thorn urging her partner to “kiss me while the world decays/ Kiss me while the music plays”. A clarinet prowls like a ghost cat through the mournful melody of “Interior Space”. The album ends with the slow snow-crunch pulse of “Karaoke” on which Thorn asks herself: “Do you sing to heal the broken hearted? Do you sing to get the party started?/ You know I try…” It’s a prayer for audience connection that ends in finger snaps. Amen.