“Now there’s kids to tell, and legal bills, and custody, and oh, the divorces!”
In a world of pop music seemingly preoccupied with all things youthful, it’s incredibly striking to hear lyrics such as these, from the opening track of Tracey Thorn’s new album, Love and Its Opposite. It’s refreshing to hear a lyricist describe an area of life so often neglected in music - and so candidly too. The song in question, Oh, the Divorces!, is an extremely frank meditation on the fragility of relationships and the thoughts that invade your waking hours when close friends separate. I may be a childless, unmarried man in my twenties, but Thorn can turn a phrase so well that you can’t help but be affected by the stark imagery and evocative nature of her words.
It’s a trend repeated often throughout Love and Its Opposite, Thorn’s first LP since 2007’s Out of the Woods, and it’s difficult to recall a female songwriter so open, yet remaining so poetic and not falling into the trap which frequently claims Kate Nash and Lily Allen as victims. Take Singles Bar, for example. Thorn may be assuming an alter ego, but the attention to detail (“I pull off my ring as I push my way in/Won’t be needing it in here”), insecurity (“Can you guess my age in this light?”) and feeling of futile surrender (“I think I’m resigned just to take what I find”) coupled with a lovely sparse arrangement and clean guitar fills bring the track to life.
It’s tempting just to list a collection of Tracey Thorn’s bon mots in place of a review, as she can even be said to hold a candle to Joni Mitchell on this form. However, in the interests of good journalistic practice, we’ll move on to the music itself. Love and Its Opposite is often a careful-sounding album and while that synopsis may not quicken the heart, it gives Thorn’s work an air of professionalism and care. Many of the ten tracks here use simple arrangements and all bear the aural fingerprints of Everything But The Girl, Thorn’s alma mater. Long White Dress, in particular, is meticulously constructed, demonstrating a real love of creating music. She’s not afraid of experimentation either; penultimate track, Late in the Afternoon, is packed with skittering minimalist beats and the sound of fingers sliding up fret boards, reminiscent of the night music of Portishead or The xx.
Although Tracey Thorn should possibly be approaching national treasure status on this showing, Love and Its Opposite isn’t without its faults. The careful, structured approach may be laudable when it works, but on the occasions it doesn’t, it can leave the listener bored. The uncertain suspended chords of Kentish Town and the ghostly, swirling shoegaze of Come On Home To Me wouldn’t be missed if they weren’t heard again. Particularly ill-advised is the handbag house of Why Does the Wind?, which evokes a more palatable version of unfondly-remembered 90s dance outfit M People, albeit a version of M People that doesn’t have a honking foghorn as a lead vocalist.
It really is in the writing where Tracey Thorn shines, though. Wonderful couplets and phrases flow from her, seemingly without effort, giving a clear indication of what it means to be a forty-something woman in 21st Century Britain. The awkwardness felt when a daughter you view as still an infant enters womanhood is summarised perfectly with what initially appears to be a throwaway line: “I must confess, that dress looks better on you now”. The taboo subject of middle-aged sexuality is handled in such an exposed manner, you find yourself rooting for Thorn’s protagonist as she sings, confidence slowly rising with each word, “I wish you’d help me out of this mess, I wish you’d help me out of this dress”.
Being out of the first flushes of youth doesn’t make you irrelevant in popular music, true, but it’s tricky to recall an artist tackling the issue of aging and its effects so fearlessly. Despite its imperfections, Love and Its Opposite remains an impressive achievement, and one that certainly merits and rewards repeated listening. Any pretenders in the land of singer-songwriters who think they can pen a decent verse should study this album closely and hopefully learn from what they find within.