We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Tracey Thorn wears her sadness like an evening gown. The get-up, of course, couldn’t be less sensible—it leaves her quivering and altogether more transparent than before she put it on. Yet to Thorn, the outfit feels like shelter and strength, and it makes her more lovely. She’s stronger when she’s exposed, and the night’s darkness helps conceal eyes so remote that she’ll still seem a block away even if she gets you into bed. As she trolls the night in search of protection, love, more hurt, whatever, Thorn chills the air around her with melancholy. Two words from her mouth and you’ll want to give her your coat.
Thorn’s romance with the night has been long and tortured. That it’s also become increasingly substantive in recent years is due in no small part to Thorn’s relationship with Ben Watt, her husband and her partner in the duo Everything But the Girl. Regardless of what their music sometimes suggests, Thorn and Watt are not club kids and never really have been; they’re aging London sophisticates who’ve always fussed over appearances, particularly when those appearances are manifest in sound.
Temperamental is EBTG’s ninth full-length record, and it culminates a creative rebirth that began in 1994, the year the couple emerged from a breakup that didn’t take and Watt’s near-death experience with a rare disease. These narrowly averted tragedies seemed to give EBTG’s night music swiveling hips and newfound depth. At the time of its release, ’94’s Amplified Heart made it sound as if Thorn and Watt were atoning for all of their tastefully suspect dalliances with bossa nova and big-production soul. Given the palatable tumult underlying Heart’s songs, the band’s smooth lounge-pop no longer sounded mannered; it was hard-earned. (If Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein had exhibited this much composure in the face of heartache, we’d be hearing Dig Me Out in the chill-out room.) By the time 1996’s Walking Wounded emerged, the pop had left the lounge altogether, yet the smoothness and the bedlam were still there, forced to remain friends amid a melee of ricocheting rim shots and slowly breaking hearts.
EBTG’s entrance into the breakbeat era would be far less notable if Thorn and Watt’s motives were entirely professional. The club-music vagaries (namely drum ‘n’ bass and jungle) celebrated on Wounded have become the kind of sonic jewelry fading stars buy to re-access their youth. But what Wounded hinted at and Temperamental makes clear is that EBTG has more at stake than chart position. Watt and Thorn’s partnership is as personal as their battle to reinvent the music, and there’s little in the resulting songs to suggest that their task is terribly pleasant. If you think dance music is cold and impersonal, the opening pulses of Temperamental’s “Five Fathoms” probably won’t make you think any differently. Let the groove morph, however, and you’ll find Thorn finding a reason to believe—”I’m not immune—I love this tune”—in what you thought were anonymous beats.
In the wake of his illness, Watt immersed himself in London’s club scene (he’s now a DJ at his own club), and his growing understanding of how to compose dance music has coincided nicely with his audience’s increasing awareness of how to hear it. On Wounded, the mixes didn’t hide the old-school riff supporting them—strip away the busywork from many of those tunes and you’ll find a song to strum by the campfire. Temperamental, on the other hand, seems to spring fully from Watt’s gadgetry; his obsession has clearly evolved beyond a passing fancy, and Thorn’s got the fever, too. The title track is a full-on house groove with all the accouterments, and Thorn rides it to the conclusion, dropping a few apt passages of falsetto along the way. In over 15 years of recording, she’s never sounded so eager to succumb.
But succumb to what? The romantic/ creative inertia that caused Thorn and Watt to seek out new modes of expression was such that they seem almost blindly worshipful of what they’ve found. On Temperamental, it’s all but impossible to tell who or what is ultimately in charge. Artistically, the duo has hit pay dirt; nothing explicates house music’s soul as well as Thorn’s highly nuanced melancholy, and there’s no more affecting diva-DJ combo going than EBTG. Where they’re going is certainly more interesting than where they’ve been, but their lives are still in disarray. Both are mature enough to understand that neither is exclusively responsible for the other’s heartaches. In “Lullaby of Clubland,” Thorn sings Watt’s lyrics about finding a quickie at 2 a.m. like someone who knows the drill. And that’s not even one of the sad songs.
It’s enough to make you wonder: Will Watt and Thorn find salvation in the rare grooves? Will the desperation of the search tear them apart? Would their marriage be better off if they had never discovered all that fabulous music that’s played at 3 a.m.? The answer’s unclear. When they hold themselves up to the strobe light, all they see is a bunch of crazy-beautiful colors. Everything else is black. CP