On ‘Guitar’, a track from her new album, Tracey Thorn reflects on the enduring impact of music, and its power to soundtrack a life and shape it. The narrator’s paramour plays guitar and teaches his lover some chords – yet it soon becomes clear that the instrument, not the man, is the enduring love object here. “You were nothing but a catalyst” she acknowledges, before concluding with a final celebratory refrain. “Thank God for my guitar.”
If we can’t help hearing many of the songs on Thorn’s new album ‘Record’ as semi-autobiographical reflections, it’s only because we’ve enjoyed her memoirs so much (to the extent we’ve almost committed certain passages of her 2013 autobiography ‘Bedsit Disco Queen’ to memory). ‘Guitar’ certainly holds gentle echoes of the endearing and funny stories she told in that book about her early music career. Starting out in a local combo called Stern Bops alongside her boyfriend Ade, the shy 16 year old Thorn reluctantly stepped up to sing lead vocals during a bedroom rehearsal – hilariously insisting that she be allowed to perform from inside a wardrobe. It wasn’t long, though, before Thorn was using her guitar to write extremely personal and career defining reflections on her unrequited loves – notably on her 1982 solo debut ‘A Distant Shore’.
There are allusions to other personal stories throughout this album. ‘Air’ refers, in its opening verse, to Thorn’s difficult birth, where she inhaled amniotic fluid and had to be resuscitated by a quick-thinking midwife. “I was born a girl”, she sings, “Only just survived. Lucky little girl. Lucky to be alive.”
Is it unfair, intrustive even, to search diligently for clues and biographical details in every line of lyric here? Maybe, although we can’t help thinking we’d be forgiven by a singer who has got so much joy out of sharing her story with us on vinyl, in books, and most recently as a columnist for New Statesman. We’ve had a lifelong relationship with Thorn, and the intimacy of her voice and songs seems to invite us into her world without excluding us.
That said, this album doesn’t rely solely on all that stuff, and Thorn newcomers shouldn’t be put off. Even without knowledge of the singer’s life, all the songs here deal with themes we can relate to. Album opener ‘Queen’ is a jaunty song in which Thorn ponders how things might have been different in her life if a certain key love affair had never happened, or had ended early. This is universal stuff. How many of us can say they don’t approach middle age with similar mental fantasies about opportunities gained and lost?
This is by no means a downbeat or depressing record, either. Ewan Pearson, Thorn’s most regular collaborator during her solo comeback, contributes a wash of keyboard sounds and drum programs, and his production sheen imbues these songs with a fresh, poppy electro feel. The result is melodic and catchy, with the requisite undertone of thorny melancholy. ‘Record’ also boasts some impressive guest players – Jenny Lee Lindberg and Stella Mozgawa from US rock band Warpaint bring their killer rhythm section to five tracks, while Corinne Bailey Rae delivers gorgeous harmonies on the eight minute album centrepiece ‘Sister’.
Recorded in the wake of political developments both sides of the Atlantic, some of the songs here touch ever so lightly on some of Thorn’s concerns about current events. On ‘Smoke’, a paean to her beloved London, she adds “I feel you going wrong” while on ‘Sister’, she expresses her frustration about gender debates by asking “what year is it? Still arguing the same shit.”
The album contains many other lovely moments – probably none more touching than the song ‘Go’, which reflects on a parent sending their child off into adult life. “This is what it all was for”, sings Thorn, “to wave you out the door. It’s what my love was for.” Another standout track is ‘Face’, a story of someone obsessively scrolling through pictures of their ex on social media. “If I just knew for certain that you weren’t having fun”, she sings, “I could bring down the curtain, It would prove that I won.” The tune stops, and it sounds for a brief second like the song has ended. “But your face is in my face” she resumes as the track kicks back in. It’s a neat musical counterpoint to this lyrical tale of stop-start social media obsession.
The album signs off in style with ‘Dancefloor’, a more straightforward pop track about clubbing with friends. “Where I’d like to be”, sings Thorn, “is on a dancefloor with some drinks inside of me.” Given the large mirrorball motif which decorates both the CD and lyrics book, this message of togetherness and self expression through music and dance feels like the thread which connects these nine songs together. This is a record which can be analysed and examined – but first and foremost it’s music to be enjoyed and danced to.
Tracey Thorn, ‘Record’. Out now.