A staggeringly beautiful encapsulation of what made EBTG great.
The legacy of Everything But the Girl’s eighth album is a remix far removed from the musical aesthetic of the band’s work that somehow became a world-conquering single in 1995. That event seemed to overshadow everything about Amplified Heart, even in the minds of the band who quickly pivoted to electronica in response to the success of the “Missing” remix. It’s a shame, really, because the album is a far more artistically worthy achievement than one might think. Recorded by a band near their wits end, it’s a staggeringly beautiful encapsulation of what made them great, and deserves to be remembered for more than its uncharacteristic hit.
Amplified Heart’s origins lie in turmoil and despair. The band was struggling to break through commercially, and their previous album Worldwide was a blatant shift towards mainstream music trends that flopped both on the charts and with critics. Their label, Blanco Y Negro, saw this as a sign that the band weren’t destined for any sort of success, and Everything But the Girl were subsequently dropped. Furthermore, songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Ben Watt was only a year removed from a long battle with a life-threatening illness. The dour mood permeates an album whose spare arrangements were a stark contrast to the relative excess of its predecessor. “Rollercoaster” announces the more pensive nature here, with lyrics composed by Watt that evoke the image of someone drained by the world, so fed up with the ups and downs of life that even the “road to redemption” is something they do with hesitation.
That image of being alone with one’s thoughts is apt: Amplified Heart is the kind of album one would call “intimate” or “personal” if one were leaning on music writer clichés for quiet-sounding albums. Either way, Watt and singer Tracey Thorn keep things relatively simple in regards to instrumentation: most songs feature only guitar or piano accompaniment, and only the non-electronic version of “Missing” features anything resembling an actual backing band. Yet the songs aren’t sketches, nor are they the uncomfortable looks into a damaged soul in the way that one expects these albums to go. Thorn and Watt are professionals as attuned to song craft as they are to naked emotion, and this is as studied and well-crafted a selection of songs as the band ever created. The spare arrangements allow Thorn’s vocals–which were always the centerpiece of the band’s songs–to carry even more emotional heft. One can hear the distance she feels as she sings the chorus of “Get Me,” pleading, “But do you get me?/ Do you ever get me?” in a way that infuses a simple statement with so much depth of feeling. There are moments of levity: the reassuring “We Walk the Same Line” and the wistful, Watt-fronted “25th December” help to close the album with the aural equivalent of a warm hug after so much prior emotional devastation. Even at its slightest, though, Amplified Heart loses none of its power.
Everything But the Girl was never the kind of band to make big, grandiose statements. At their best, they worked their way slowly into one’s heart with the sort of songwriting that takes multiple listens to unfold. Thus, while Amplified Heart seems like just another pretty pop album on the surface, it rewards the listener with gem after gem from a duo rediscovering their artistic muse at just the right time. The album is such a powerful listen that the memory of that overplayed dance remix is all but forgotten.