This is the first Everything But the Girl album in 24 years, and Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt can’t blame the long absence on an acrimonious split. They’ve been a couple this whole time, too distracted by raising three children, making solo albums (four for Thorn, three for Watt), writing memoirs (four-two to Thorn) and DJing, running record labels and nightclubs (all Watt) to get together in the studio again.
Lockdown forced their hand, however, leaving them more isolated than most due to Watt’s life threatening autoimmune disease, Churg-Strauss syndrome. They began writing together at home at last, at first labelling any new music as “TREN”, for “Tracey and Ben”, to avoid any expectations that might be piled on by the old band name.
For it might be hard to remember how big Everything But the Girl were in the late Nineties. Around the same time, Thorn’s appearance on three Massive Attack songs and a Todd Terry remix of the Everything But the Girl song, Missing, propelled the duo’s shift from more guitar-based fare towards the kind of sophisticated, relaxed dance music that suited post-club and yes, hip dinner party, listening. Their 1996 album Walking Wounded was a platinum seller, after which they turned down stadium support slots with U2 in favour of quieter domesticity.
The tasteful sound became ubiquitous and rather tiresome around the Dido era, but as Thorn and Watt return as 60-year-olds there’s a more interesting world weariness amid the crisp beats. Thorn’s elegant voice still drips with sadness but is a shade lower. She gives it rare permission to be sanded and scuffed on Interior Space and When You Mess Up, where digital effects distort it into intriguing new shapes.
Lyrically, it’s easy to tell a lot more life experience has taken place. Lost finds Thorn singing: “I lost my faith and my best friend,” and repeating “I lost my mother” over shimmering synth textures. “Is this the beginning or close to the end?” she wonders on Time and Time Again.
There’s low-key fun to be had too, though. On both No One Knows We’re Dancing and Karaoke, they paint pictures of groups of people enjoying music as a communal experience. Meanwhile, on Nothing Left to Lose, the beats pick up, the bassline throbs, Thorn’s voice maintains its impeccable soulfulness and it feels like no time has passed. I wonder if Bono still has their number?