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There are pop songs. There are ballads. And then there are healing songs. They can come from anywhere, any source, and never say too much beyond the simplest emotions. There are usually love or loss metaphors wrapped around pleas and plain truthsclichés, reallymade powerful by perfect timing or emotional force. They don’t make you sing about love; they make you feel what it’s like, the way the best poetry does. The way pop songs almost never do.
A ballad is Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee.” A healer is Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s “The Crossroads.” Ballads are slow by definition and usually singular in experience. Healers make you put on headphones. Ballads are night music, making you want to seek out a partner. Healers, you save for dawns. And they are almost always best when you are alone. Listening to healers is like blowing out candles on your birthday cake. Like having your wishes and regrets played back for you.
In the ’90s, the healers have followed the exits of famous folk. Nirvana’s “All Apologies,” released around the time of Kurt Cobain’s death, satisfied us as a healing song. R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” certainly qualified. They each seemed to hit a nerve, to rule the radio like “The Crossroads” and Tupac’s first post-death single, “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” (the one where he met Redd Foxx and Miles in heaven), which seemed to play every half-hour on 93.9 two years ago.
British singer-songwriter Beth Orton has fashioned a whole career out of healing songs. Although the mainstream press has dubbed her another dour triphopper, she’s about as much into the space-age-dub stuff as Britney Spears is into Catholic school. With her new album, Central Reservation, Orton has grown into a sort of faith healer.
Yeah, she’s a Lilith girl, but only in that she really wants to reach out and touch somebody. She doesn’t go to the same church as Tori or muss up her songs with pasty vocal overdubs like Sarah. She prefers old folk to New Age. She’s a moon-faced Pippi who happens to write songs that strike like reflections off chrome. In effect, she’s the true definition of a healer. She obeys all the rules.
Healers are classicists. Orton uses the late-’60s/early-’70s folk of Terry Callier (whom she plays with on Central Reservation) and Nick Drake (if you replace his orchestral movements with digital orchestral movements) as her template. Healers keep their emotions simple. Orton’s song titles could distill every emotional climax on a Party of Five episode: “Feel to Believe,” “Live as You Dream,” “Couldn’t Cause Me Harm.” The songs themselves are weepy and willowy.
You can forgive healers. You can’t forgive Luther Vandross for constantly showing up on Oprah, or Natalie Merchant for her pretentiousness. But you can forgive Beth for sounding too much like VH1 on her last album, Trailer Park. That album wasn’t the much-hyped first attempt at a triphop/folk hybrid people said it washasn’t anybody listened to the last two Suzanne Vega albums?but you could ignore its failure of ambition for her voice. It had range that Natalie couldn’t attempt. It could stretch elastic up scales. Her voice could also go totally nasal, lying like broken branches across beats, or feathered to a violin’s melodyeven if the violin was a sequenced sample.
And her lyrics are too plain not to grab you. When she did a guest vocal on the Chemical Brothers’ “Alive: Alone,” you might have figured Orton would be swallowed up by their big beats and guitar drones. But she provided the only emotional depth on the entire album. The song has her waking up, drinking a cup of coffee, and wondering what the hell she did the night before, and the night before, and the night before. She was the tired rave girl speaking for us all; Orton was rightfully tagged the “Comedown Queen.”
She has always seemed like the girl lost at the party, whether on “Alive: Alone” or throughout much of Trailer Park. On Central Reservation, Orton has succeeded in developing her own turf. This time, her voice is only stronger, her subjects more dense. Her voice emerges through a steady stream of simple folk melodies and soft, trippy beats. But she’s there in the end, controlling everythingmainly your heartstrings. As she sings, she can feel her heart on the roof of her mouth.
With Reservation, Orton has grown into a careful songwriter. The same way Ann Beattie crafts short storiesslow and crypticOrton feels her way through a first verse, laying out a structure and then slowly caving it all in. She can be both conversational and metaphoric, describing a lover and then blowing him up.
On “Stolen Car,” the first single, a lover’s eyes are cinnamon, and his fingers are fuses. It’s a mix of attraction and fear; Orton can’t make up her mind. The car in the title is a metaphor for her lover’s face. Such a proposition could be played for major teardrops, but Orton wisps through the song at a speedy clip. The track ends with her pleading for a place where she really belongs.
On “Sweetest Decline,” she finds itsitting on a porch and drinking in the scene. Backed by smooth strings and Dr. John’s warm piano playing, Orton puts her voice on display. Again, the metaphors are high: Secrets are worn like ribbons in hair; she’s deep as a well; her heart sinks with the sun. Behind the overt emotions, Orton drops simple lessons on regrets”They are lessons we haven’t learned yet.” Then she says, “So, anyway…” and jumps back to repeat a verse.
The album fades in and out of these moments as if Orton were peeking out from behind a curtain at the new dawn and giving a wink. And then she drops serious passion between asides, like her odes to regret on “Couldn’t Cause Me Harm” or the urgent entreaties for a child to come out from his grief over a dying loved one on “Pass in Time.”
Even the simple pop songs can be healers when Orton sings into them. On “Love Like Laughter,” with its warm organ melody, Orton starts talking, all conversational, about freight cars, and then ends up writing a paean to a boyfriend’s sneer. It gradually becomes a song about opening your heart. It’s Hallmark stuff, but she plays it with depth, repeating the lines like a mantra against blind love. You realize it’s a song about getting over a bad boyfriend. And she doesn’t spell it out too concretely or sentimentally.
Sure, there are some duds on the disc, such as the lame attempt at blues (“Devil’s Song”) and the beat-driven, Dr. Dre-keyboard swank of “Stars All Seem to Weep.” But the rest of the album is too strong and dense to ignore. By the time you get to “Feel to Believe” and the remix of the title track, Orton compels you to listen and keep faith with her. Few singers ever get that deep. So you forgiveand listen to “Feel to Believe” over and over, until the sun comes up. CP