Tracey Thorn: Tinsel and Lights – review

(Strange Feeling)

Tracey Thorn's fourth solo album arrives a few months before her autobiography, the splendidly titled Bedsit Disco Queen. The book acts not just as Thorn's memoir, but as a eulogy for an almost forgotten era of pop. You might call it the unrevived 80s: an earnest, cardigan-clad and Doc Marten-shod world of benefit gigs and ill-tempered interviews about ideology, of "musical delegates" heading off to Russia to perform at the World Federation of Democratic Youth's Festival of Youth and Students ("In between the bands, two men sat on the stage and had a debate about 'music and the state'"). It was a world in which Thorn and her partnership with Ben Watt in Everything But the Girl were deeply rooted: at one point, she details her own game attempt to turn the teeny readers of Smash Hits away from the distractions of hunky John Taylor and Howard Jones and on to a book called The British in Northern Ireland: The Case for Withdrawal.

It all comes as a useful reminder that there was a time when the notion of a Christmas album by Tracey Thorn – better yet, a Christmas album by Tracey Thorn featuring a guest appearance by Green Gartside, the Deleuze and Gramsci-referencing frontman of Scritti Politti – would have seemed like a music press hoax: have yourself a merry little Christmas, if you're in the business of allowing commodity fetishism to distract you from the terrible social injustices that are happening under your nose. Indeed, even after that era ended, she would have seemed an unlikely candidate for an album of seasonal cheer. It's not just that her voice and songs alike incline towards the dolorous. Even when Everything But the Girl hit the dancefloor in considerable style – their 1996 album Walking Wounded assimilated house and drum'n'bass influences into their sound with a remarkable ease – the songs themselves remained resolutely downcast. There's also the fact that, from Everything But the Girl's early flirtations with Cole Porter and Stan Getz to her latterday collaborations with Berlin-based techno auteur Ewan Pearson (who produces again), Thorn's music has invariably been the product of quiet good taste, and quiet good taste isn't really a phrase you associate with Christmas music. Nor is sharp, stark realism, something else Thorn's music tends to deal in: Christmas songs are about the construction of an appealing fantasy, a three-minute suspension of disbelief.

In the event, all the factors that should count against Tinsel and Lights being a success actually work to its advantage. The quiet good taste is much in evidence: there's only one canonical Christmas favourite, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Elsewhere, she picks stuff from the oeuvres of Randy Newman and the White Stripes, the latter's In the Cold Cold Night rendered as a delicate shimmer. She duets with Gartside on Taking Down the Tree, from Low's 1999 EP Christmas, one of the few successful alt-rock Christmas records precisely because it sounds heartfelt, with no mitigating sheen of irony. She locates the emotions that lurk beneath the archness of Stephin Merrit's songwriting. Like a Snowman was originally performed by a New York drag cabaret duo called Kiki and Herb, but Thorn strips away any affection: the end result, delicately orchestrated, blessed with a beautiful melody, is so heartrending you forget you're listening to the deeply improbable sound of the woman from Everything But the Girl proposing you take all your clothes off and dance in a snowstorm.

Likewise, the persistent ache in Thorn's voice lends an affecting depth to Tinsel and Lights: sounding a little dolorous about the festive season isn't so bizarre, given how wretched many people feel by 27 December. The opener, Joy, one of two self-penned songs, isn't about Christmas so much as its myth. The protagonist is desperate to believe that, this year, she can regain her sense of childhood wonder about the whole business; the way Thorn sings it suggests it's a folorn hope. The title track, meanwhile, features a character looking back at an ostensibly perfect Christmas past, with a vague intimation that it wasn't really that perfect: "Something almost true was in the air," she sings.

The most surprising thing about Tinsel and Lights might not be that it's a Christmas album by Tracey Thorn, but that it manages to transcend its genre and the season it's intended to soundtrack, perhaps because it forsakes any of the usual musical signifiers: you'll search in vain for a hint of sleighbell. With a couple of judicious pokes of the fast-forward button, you can listen to it on a wet October afternoon when Christmas seems as far away as Neptune, without feeling suicidal as a result. Among the ranks of seasonal albums, that might well make it unique.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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