Beth Orton has turned the long-term, serious artist career trajectory on its head somewhat with her decision to now make an album that includes straightforward synth pop and a surprise return to the more dance-based electronic-folk sound that made her collaborations with artists in the early 90s such as the Chemical Brothers and William Orbit such enduring classics. It is expected that performers such as Orton – whose last album Sugaring Season from 2012 was a solely acoustic confirmation of her mighty singer-songwriter credentials – explore and engage with the more purist and sometimes pondering elements of their work as their careers progress. Orton, however, has other ideas and on her sixth album has made her most forward-sounding, accessible and exciting record yet.
Kidsticks is, as you may imagine from her previous work, an exploration of Beth Orton’s emotional reactions to her current life. Kidsticks is a revealing title; Orton has a family and children that have undoubtably impacted massively on her life and subsequent decisions. On ‘Corduroy Legs’, for example, vocal samples confirm powerful sound associations that a mother makes about her children. There is a sense of joy about many of the songs here and a wonderment about the world and the ways that it can be experienced. On the opening track ‘Snow’, she sounds euphoric and excitably child-like, with various phrases piled up on top of one another to form a glorious and uplifting mantra: ‘I’ll astrally project myself into the life of someone else / I’m getting high off your star! / You are all aglow, in the smoke and the snow’.
Beth Orton has co-produced Kidsticks with Andrew Hung of Bristol’s Fuck Buttons and he proves to an inspired, but in many ways typical, choice of collaborator for Orton. Songs such as ‘Moon’ and ‘Petals’ (which appropriately sit next to one another, sharing a sonic and thematic kinship) may not be considered ‘on-trend’ but the fantastic ‘Moon’ – with its dub-ready, stalking guitar line – and the booming bass drops of ‘Petals’ are as relevant to Orton’s work, and music generally, over the last 25 years as they are today.
‘Wave’ has a sinewy, sensuous freshness that is modern and almost entirely electronic, and Orton’s immediately distinguishable vocals are just as evocative and richly expressive set within this soundscape as opposed to that of a more classical and less thrill-seeking environment.
When I heard the first new music from Kidsticks in the form of single ‘1973’, the shock of hearing Orton sing on a track that is structured and sounds like a nonchalant electro-pop song served as a brilliant curveball from the off. ‘Sitting around and speeding like its ’79 there was always somewhere else I’d have to be in my mind… I wasn’t even there I swear, I must have been elsewhere’. Orton sings over initially rigid and stark synth-lines in a higher register that we’ve heard versions of before, sounding as enlightened as she does flippant. ‘1973’ is unexpectedly accessible and reckless. It wouldn’t sound out of place on the new Tegan & Sara record or as a dream Kylie single, and is easily a high point of Orton’s two-decade-plus career.
‘Falling’ again presents Orton in a more tightly electronic-pop soundscape but is one of the more lyrically sombre and fully grown-up interpretations of day-to-day life. ‘Now my phone is filling up with dead friends and I wonder who would answer if I called them?’ is a question that is both poignant and devastating in its eventuality.
Love songs feature heavily and ‘Dawnstar’ is the most effecting and dominant. Rising out of softly droning and alarming synth lines which lead eventually to lush but hesitant strings, Orton repeats that her love is gaining speed and the associated, out-of-control rush that comes from this is palpable.
Kidsticks is a record that is completely unexpected and often dazzling in its range and imagination – musically, lyrically and vocally – and Beth Orton has never sounded more vital and alive and this record is testament to her ongoing and unique artistry.