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Rediscover: Tracey Thorn: A Distant Shore

Rediscover: Tracey Thorn: A Distant Shore

Even at a young age, Thorn revealed an emotional maturity.

Tracey Thorn may be best known for Everything But the Girl, the group she fronted for two decades with Ben Watt. But one of the most significant showcases for her talent came early in her career with a 1982 solo debut made when she was barely out of her teens.

Clocking in at just over 20 minutes, A Distant Shore, released between Thorn’s brief stint in the Stern Bops and a more substantial tenure with Marine Girls, feels more like an EP. Accompanying herself on guitar, Thorn’s voice is perhaps less studio-slick than in her future work, and the sparse instrumentation helps her avoid the sonic trappings of the era. Even 37 years later, it sounds like it could have been released this year. Its delicate, lo-fi confessional may be a touchstone for more artists than we think.

The songs are each constructed around a simple but effective guitar pattern which repeats under Thorn’s singing, as on the melancholy opener “Small Town Girl.” At times Thorn double-tracks her vocals, either to lend more weight to particular lines or to briefly give her voice a more resonant, phantasmic quality.

As her lyrics with Everything But the Girl would frequently address affairs of the heart, “Simply Couldn’t Care” finds Thorn navigating a life-changing, transformative relationship: “You’re maddening but you keep me awake/ And I would scream at you, but there’s too much at stake.” The impressionistic “Seascape” treats similar themes and the bittersweet feeling of how love changes us for the better, but not without some sacrifice. Indeed, wrestling over such changes continues to be a theme in “Dreamy,” in which shifting pronouns seem to reflect a state of indecision, with “I,” “you” and “she” plausibly referring to aspects of the same person.

Thorn is at her best as a songwriter when capturing such fraught states, and her intimate vocals give the impression that she is reflecting on her own life in all its emotional fluctuations. This happens poignantly in “Too Happy,” in which she recounts the fragile dynamics of life with another person: “Why must we go through these little scenes/ Each wondering what the other’s silence means.” In the end she accepts that with great love comes responsibility and vulnerability.

Even at a young age, Thorn revealed an emotional maturity, as on one of the album’s strongest songs, “Plain Sailing”: “Tempting to think now it will all be plain sailing/ Old enough now to know there’s no such thing.” A Distant Shore found Thorn at a turning point in her life and career, and she responded with a lucid gaze beyond her years.

During the end of her time in Marine Girls, when she was a student at the University of Hull, Thorn met Watt, and the pair debuted as Everything but the Girl with the 1984 album Eden. Thorn’s solo debut is a snapshot of a life in transition. She struggles to find solace in the knowledge that life will always feel this way; perhaps, for her, that bittersweet revelation is the very key to her music.

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