This week, Everything But the Girl’s social media accounts posted some previously lost footage of the duo around the time of their debut album, 1984’s Eden. A riot of extravagantly spiked hair, filthy-looking London streets and indoor smoking, the clips act as a time capsule and a reminder of the milieu from which the duo sprang: a grimier, greyer, more earnest 1980s than pop cultural nostalgia – with its rouged new romantics and yuppies bellowing into enormous mobile phones – usually allows.
It was all a very long time ago. Bands who reform decades on from their breakthrough tend to follow a set path: warmly received live shows playing the hits, followed by a new album designed to evoke fond memories of the way they – and their fans – once were. But Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn were never a band minded to abide by anything but a desire, as Thorn once put it, “to defy categorisation even at the risk of losing a guaranteed audience”. Eden established them among a wave of artists dubbed new jazz, but they never made an album that sounded like it again: theirs is a back catalogue in which slick modern soul chafes against kitchen-sink-drama indie and deep house, where lavish 60s orchestrations fight for space with drum’n’bass inspired by Peshay and Alex Reece.
So it is with their unexpected return. Thorn’s ambivalent attitude to live performance – a subject rather sweetly explored on Fuse’s closing track, Karaoke – means there’s no warmly received reunion tour. It bears little more than a superficial similarity to their past work, aside from Thorn’s voice, which has aged in a way that suits her: deeper, a little rougher around the edges, and, if anything, even more careworn. You could argue that it picks up where 1999’s Temperamental left off – it’s definitely the work of the EBTG who were reinvigorated by dance music – but that doesn’t feel quite right. Temperamental was a product of its era, rooted in US house and drum’n’bass. So is Fuse, complete with the developments that have taken place in dance music over the ensuing 24 years.
The heavy bass and two-step garage skip to the rhythm of opener Nothing Left to Lose place it squarely in the post-dubstep world: so too do the ghostly electronics that gust around the album’s piano ballads and the slow-motion Lost, decorated with skittering hi-hats and twisted, disembodied samples of Thorn’s voice. The muffled tones of Caution to the Wind and the fluff-on-the-needle distortion applied to Interior Space suggest the lo-fi house of Ross from Friends or DJ Seinfeld. On When You Mess Up, Thorn’s voice is fed through an Auto-Tune-like effect: not the familiar one that adds an android sheen to swathes of contemporary pop, but something more dramatic, rendering one of pop’s more immediately recognisable voices completely unrecognisable. You suspect Thorn and Ben Watt did this not just because it sounds intriguing and works within the context of the song – it leaves Thorn, playing the role of a consoling friend, effectively duetting with herself – but because they know a certain kind of EBTG fan would consider it sacrilege.
As with the album that introduced the new, beat-driven EBTG to the world, 1996’s Walking Wounded, none of this ever feels like artists of a certain age glomming on to the latest trends. It is audibly made by people with a deep love for and understanding of the music they’re inspired by. Certainly, they understand it enough to realise it will work perfectly with Thorn’s voice and with their songs, which are of a strikingly high standard. Their emotional temperature ranges from despairing to melancholy – even No One Knows We’re Dancing, a beautifully drawn pen-portrait of the diverse characters “trapped in a feeling” on an after-hours club’s dancefloor, has a wistful quality to it – and they frequently seem as haunted by current events as 1985’s Love Not Money was by Britain under Thatcherism: “Kiss me while the world decays,” pleads Thorn at one juncture. When You Mess Up is marked by a weariness with the confrontational, unforgiving side of public discourse; the yearning that underpins No One Knows We’re Dancing seems to come from lockdown. The most beautiful song could be Run a Red Light – it’s got a particularly prepossessing melody – but, for all his boasting about the infallibility of his plans, you get the distinct feeling that its protagonist is doomed to failure, perhaps just doomed full stop.
Of course, the mood was ever thus in EBTG’s world, the link between the twentysomethings recording songs infused with samba rhythms and the influence of cool jazz in the old footage online and the 60-year-olds who have made Fuse. It’s an album that manages to be different from anything they’ve recorded before yet perfectly in keeping with their past: a comeback worth waiting for.
This week Alexis listened to
Iraina – Sugar High
From the debut album by Iraina Mancini – singer-songwriter, soul DJ and daughter of David Bowie’s schoolfriend Geoff MacCormack – this is a huge, swirling, sample-heavy ballad that feels as if it’s broadcast from the middle of a dream.