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Tracey Thorn
Love And Its Opposite Iain Moffat , May 18th, 2010 14:37

Warning: contains adult themes! Have no fear, though, readers - we're not exactly looking at the carcrash clumsiness of the latest thoroughly bizarre Kate Nash effort or the cosy complacency of solo Richard Ashcroft here. Instead, with its relentless challenge to the orthodoxy that suggests certainty and security will inevitably only increase with age, this is practically skirting similar territory to Abba's masterpiece The Visitors and, frankly, the youthful horizons of A Distant Shore couldn't seem further away...

Not that this is an extended essay in bleakness; far from it. Tracey Thorn's strength as a vocalist has never been her chipperness, but she nonetheless approaches middle age with a somewhat surprisingly sparkling good humour. 'Singles Bar', in particular, is delivered with a splendid matter-of-factness akin to Kirsty MacColl at her finest. There’s also an embarrassingly rich observational quality that recasts any number of stranded-on-the-dancefloor anthems in an experienced and not necessarily flattering light, and smoulders with the melodic mellowness of, say, Super Furry Animals' 'Fire In My Heart'. 'Hormones', perhaps the most immediately standout affair here, scuttles along via a charming New Roots swing as Thorn sings about the menopause. Which makes a change.

Indeed, there's much here that emphasises the idea of Thorn embarking on an entirely new stage in her life, with the continued courting of the club crowd that worked so well on 'Out Of The Woods' all but eschewed (with, arguably, the exceptions of 'Why Does The Wind''s dignified throb and finale 'Swimming', whose metronomic swell provides a valedictory note of optimism), and there are occasions when neither drum nor bass makes an appearance at all. This works best on recent single 'Oh, The Divorces!', which glides insidiously on waves of Satie-styled piano and a perplexed Greek chorus of strings and provides some of the year's most potent lyrical tableaux - "the honeymoon, the wedding rings... the afternoon handovers by the swings" in particular has an alarming bite. However, a more minimal approach serves her well elsewhere: the barely-there guitar on her cover of the Unbending Trees' 'You Are A Lover' underscores one of her most boldly stretching performances, and the unhurried melancholy and bathetic bullroarer backing on 'Late In The Afternoon' call to mind nothing so much as the Gabriel-Bush glory of 'Don't Give Up'.

That's a risk-and-three-quarters, of course, and it says a lot for Thorn that she's actually able to navigate it quite so compellingly. This isn't a flawless album by any means - there's certainly the sense on first listen at least that perhaps it needn't be quite so temperate, and it's difficult to imagine this engaging a previously unfamiliar generation the way that 'Missing' did - but the unfathomably everyday magic of that voice, unconfident but confiding, and technicality-free yet effortlessly soulful, remains brilliantly undimmed. With this album, she's left in everything but the girliness, and, for such a singular endeavour, it's reaped handsome rewards.