Album review: Tracey Thorn – Record

John Preston

Tracey Thorn’s fourth record is a sharply structured and expertly written synth-pop mini-suite. As someone who grew up with Everyone But the Girl (and before their Todd Terry house smash ‘Missing’), Thorn’s immediately recognisable voice is present and correct. But sonically this is a very different sound compared to the glum, bedsit, acoustic indie associated with the duo.

Thorn as a solo artist, though, has always returned to dance music of a sort. The soulful performances she gave to Massive Attack’s Protection album are many people’s favourites from the band and her love of US house is littered everywhere in her more recent work. There is something very British about Tracey Thorn, of course – her sense of humour and often exasperated turn of phrase are still wonderfully at the very core of Record.

Ewan Pearson, a frequent collaborator of Thorn’s over the last decade or so, returns as producer and avoids any current radio trends. He and Thorn plunder a Pet Shop Boys- and Bronski Beat-centric queer, electro-pop sound – which is purer and more concentrated than any of of her previous albums, which have always touched on this musical period.

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Thorn writes from her own experiences and is invariably looking backwards, and forwards, whilst also commenting on issues that currently dominate the cultural landscape. ‘Sister’, which is eight and a half minutes of mid-tempo, soulful funk, bemoans the inherent sexism which is still, unbelievably, everywhere in 2018; and the dark sadness of ‘Face’ links social media fanaticism with depressive obsessions.

Thorn links up young, gay electro-pop singer songwriter Shura on highlight ‘Air’, a song about being an outsider and the frustrations of the conservativeness of youth; Thorn relaying how she was overlooked by boys because she wasn’t the stereotypical ‘girly girl’. It’s an elegant and brilliant ode to otherness.

‘Guitar’ continues the theme of young crushes and feelings of low-morale, but the twist here is Thorn was inspired by these experiences in ways that pushed her to become a singer and a songwriter, enabling her to express her frustrations, beautifully, through music. ‘Smoke’ is a melancholic love-letter to a London that was essential to establishing Thorn’s sense of identity and a feeling of finally belonging, but what does London represent to her now and how does it compere to the cultural, spiritual haven that it was?

Album closer ‘Dancefloor’ is infused with a nostalgia and sentimentalism that is possibly a little too on the nose for the song to fully hit its intended mark. As can be presumed from its title, this is the album’s most solid dance track and it is still warm and engaging. It may in fact become a fan favourite, as many will identify with its sentiments. Dancing to Chic, Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King and Shannon may not mean that much to anyone under 40 – apart from crate-digging hipsters maybe – but Thorn’s demographic is unlikely to include too many millennials.

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Much better is ‘Queen’, a pounding synth-banger which positions Thorn as a stately, seen-it-all trouper going through the motions of again trying to find love. It’s arch and funny, as is much of Record, Tracey Thorn’s most accomplished and enjoyable album.

About John Preston

South London based music obsessive with strong opinions about most things. Doubts Madonna has another good record in her but would love more than anything to be proved wrong.