For over 30 years, Tracey Thorn has been the sensitive, husky voice of bittersweet pop songs. From the Marine Girls to Everything But the Girl to her own solo work, Thorn has navigated everything from spare indie-pop arrangements to lush orchestrations to techno. So why does a two-disc anthology of her solo and collaborative work seem like too much of a not good-enough thing? SOLO: Songs and Collaborations 1982-2015 has its share of highlights, but at two-and-a-half hours, even fans who find Thorn’s voice irresistible will find this album easy to resist. The two discs represent Thorn’s two musical approaches, one disc an allegiance to melody and another an allegiance to the beat. The problem is that Thorn is more consistently successful as an interpreter of melody than she is as a navigator of mid-tempo dance music.

SOLO opens auspiciously enough with “Oh, the Divorces!” from Thorn’s 2010 solo album Love and Its Opposite. The ballad is a perfect introduction to both her vocal gifts and to her favorite songwriting theme: love and its discontents with the quintessential Thorn lyric, “Who’s next?/ Who’s next?/ It’s always the ones that you least expect.” Next is the first album appearance for Thorn’s gorgeous cover of Kate Bush’s “Under the Ivy,” originally recorded for a BBC program in 2014. These opening tracks are a fine approach to what would have been a wonderful survey of Thorn’s talents as a writer and as an interpreter.

Flashing back from these late-career highlights, the album skips around chronologically with “Small Town Girl,” a slightly out-of-tune ballad that was the first track on her 1982 solo album A Distant Shore. Thorn fans will be happy to hear rarities like “Venceremos (We Will Win),” a 1984 collaboration with Working Week and Robert Wyatt and her cover of The Magnetic Fields’ “The Book of Love.” This 2007 track, originally released on the “Raise the Roof” single, is one of Thorn’s most definitive covers, adding a sensitivity lacking in Stephin Merritt’s original but not over-singing it as Peter Gabriel did on a Record Store Day 45. Disc one closes with “Joy” from Thorn’s excellent 2012 Christmas album Tinsel and Lights. This would not have been a bad place to stop the anthology. But there’s still another disc.

There may be fans of Everything But the Girl that didn’t mind when their approach shifted from bittersweet baroque pop to moody techno. But most will agree that the quality of their songwriting–indeed, the very nature of their songwriting–took a turn for the worse in their later years. Disc two is dedicated to Thorn’s forays into electronic music, and even fans of Massive Attack and Hot Chip may find their appearances highlights only in contrast to their undistinguished company.

One wonders what compelled Thorn to take a career turn that seems to sell her vocal gifts so short. She eventually returned to her signature bittersweet songwriting, with Tinsel and Lights her best album in years. That comeback is represented on disc one of this set. Cut SOLO in half and it might be a four-star album, but its full length is weighed down by what amounts to an extra set of nonessential, semi-danceable tracks from an artist whose best work doesn’t make you even think about dancing.

  • Rediscover: Tracey Thorn: A Distant Shore

    Even at a young age, Thorn revealed an emotional maturity. …
  • Tracey Thorn: Record

    A view of teenaged, disco infected hormones through the prism of middle age. …
  • Fuzz: III

    An album strictly focused on continuing the Fuzz legacy, and for some, that’s all it needs…
  • PUP: This Place Sucks Ass EP

    The EP refuses to read as a naive “we’re gonna get through this just fine” narrative, but …
  • Surfer Blood: Carefree Theatre

    Carefree Theatre feels almost like catching up with old friends. …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

The Dairy Restaurant: by Ben Katchor

Tells you far more than you thought you wanted to know about the subject, but the text and…