Tracey Thorn appears pretty ageless for one whose musical career already spans 30 years. From Marine Girls to Everything But The Girl with her partner in life, Ben Watt, and onwards through a tranche of collaborations with the likes of Massive Attack and The Style Council plus some solo work, Thorn has invariably been allied to a kind of unforced cool. She creates stylish, proficient music at the quality end of the commercial spectrum without much in the way of compromise. Love And Its Opposite is Thorns third solo work, if you include the 1982 mini-album, A Distant Shore. Considering that time line, the latest offering comes comparatively hot on the heels of her second, Out Of The Woods (2007).
Thorns vocal has an enduring clarity to it which means it works on an emotional level even in its more dispassionate moments. You can almost feel every syllable and this adds to a sense that her words include those to hang on. Yet the subject matter is largely the mundane stuff of daily living. The kind you just have to get on and do. In this way this album is less midlife crisis and more midlife book club. The themes and observations on the lives of others in their sharper vignettes lyrically call to mind those of the Canadian singer-songwriter, Kathleen Edwards. The country mood that pervades songs like the beautifully tuned confessional Long White Dress and the laid bare Singles Bar underlines this parallel.
The album starts reflectively with Oh! The Divorces. A plaintive waltz tempo wafts upwards from a lone piano as Thorns pure tones ask the question, Whos next/Whos next/Always the ones that you least expect. Its social commentary with just one guard-dropping hint of self-doubt. Musically the song sets a tone for a record that prepares you for little in the way of the electro-pop of Thorns heyday. The albums title comes from a lyric in Long White Dress and hints that the singer sees romance as the opposite of love in the sense that romance is for the young, promises much but not always delivers. So, as you mature, the sense is that you need to see beyond the roses and chocolates to keep a relationship working.
The tempo increases for the snappier Hormones, a Tracey Thorn original yet a song that could easily have been penned by Mary Chapin Carpenter and is even delivered in a languid drawl akin to that singer. The song breezes along amiably as it recounts the age-old battle of wits between mum and teenage daughter. Yours are just kicking in / mine are just checking out is a particularly apt hormonic sting. The album has its quiet, reflective moments as in the Kentish Town, Late In The Afternoon, and You Are A Lover while Why Does The Wind? is the one track that carries a bit more of an electro vibe on its breeze.
Of the albums 10 songs, eight are originals. “Come On Home To Me” is a song by Lee Hazlewood and You Are A Lover is a cover of a tune by husband Ben Watts label stable mates, The Unbending Trees. The Hazelwood song is cast as a duet with Swedish singer-songwriter, Jens Lekman, adding a resonant bass tone to Thorns songbird while a chiming backing track contributes to the starkness and chilling mystery of it all. The final song, Swimming, returns to the matter of long-term relationships. It’s more hopeful lyric tone though is a bit lost in the swirling, dismembered melodrama of the music in which Nashville daughter, Cortney Tidwell, contributes an ethereal harmony or two along with drums and bass.
Love And Its Opposite mostly casts aside electronica for a more stripped down sound where the vocals are high in the mix and the backing is concise and complementary. Producer Ewan Pearson, best known for his electro work, seems just at home in a more acoustic and string driven landscape. The music is heavily atmospheric but never that obtrusive. Lyrically Tracey Thorn sticks to what she knows best with songs that speak about the difficulty of maintaining relationships over time, and how you view them as you grow older. Musically this is a very accomplished offering but the album leaves you wanting a few more uplifting notes to balance all the midlife introspection. Maybe romance should be given a second chance after all. That, or we should break into discussion groups about the album cover.