Over the last few weeks it’s been hard to avoid the excitement of the return of Everything But The Girl, and their latest release Fuse after a 23 year hiatus as a group.
Everything But The Girl are one of my favorite stories in music. Together in a relationship (both as creatives and as a couple) since their teens and releasing music since 1984, Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt have walked a fine line with the music business and fame. They have been able to continuously make music whilst keeping their lives as separated as possible from the industry, fame and its pressures as possible whilst still being present. Before putting ETBTG on hold in 2000, they amassed 12 top 40 singles and 11 top 40 albums.
Fans interest in what Tracey and Ben have done together and on their own (at least in name) is like a train journey with multiple stops allowing their fans to jump on an jump off at different destinations as they have traveled through jazz, folk, pop, indie and dance influenced releases. Some destinations similar to the others, some very different. Brother Joseph is heavily vested in their earlier releases as his parents were fans. My journey started after I hopped on just after ‘Missing’ which has resulted in a journey less about the group and more about both Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn’s solo works through Ben’s community of Buzzin’ Fly and Tracy Thorne’s rare but effective collaborations with the likes of Tiefschwarz on ‘Damage’ and later four critically acclaimed solo albums. Both have had thoroughly successful individual journeys but have always been underpinned by the history of EBTG.
I’m mindful that I’m not delving too deep into the history of the group, but this article in the Guardian is worth a read.
Through both their musical efforts and also literary efforts there is little doubt in their creative talents which has allowed them to continue to stay present since first gaining recognition in the mid 80’s. Intertwined in their own creative paths and raising a family has always been Watt’s rare autoimmune disease Churg-Strauss syndrome. Those who follow Watt in socials would have had an insight into his forced isolation from his family throughout lock down which resulted in Thorn re-visiting the idea of EBTG and their collaboration. After some persuasion, Watt and Thorn started to create their long awaited follow up to 1999’s ‘Temperamental’. When it was finished, Thorn nonchalantly posted on twitter about it ahead of going out for dinner, whilst the music trainspotters of the world went into meltdown. What would it be like? Both had released a wide range of music since the last album. If anything for me it brought on the realization that my history with Everything But The Girl was actually everything but as their individual work is honestly where my love of their music lies. In the build up to the album 4 singles were released which strongly laid out their stall for a much talked about return.
The lead off track of Fuse (which was also the lead single) ‘Nothing Else To Loose’ was championed by brother David as his track of the month on a recent This Is Not Happening podcast episode and is everything I wanted from a EBTG release. Thorn’s harrowing vocals float through a well-orchestrated music journey with strong hints of the Buzzin’ Fly Records releases that were always present in my record bag throughout most of the 2000’s. There is little doubt that the track will be a favorite for many throughout 2023 and beyond. ‘Run A Red Light’ and then ‘Caution In The Wind’ followed as singles as they do on the album. All three solid tracks that easily fell into non stop plays in our house.
‘When You Mess Up’ was the first song they wrote together when starting on this project which the Vulture review called ‘culture-war commentary delivered as motherly advice’, though Thorn highlighted that in fact that she wrote it in the voice of giving advice to herself. Where the track sits in the curation of the album tracks, it also reminds us that ETBTG have never been a one trick pony and are here to give as a wide spectrum of music that they want to make. ‘Time And Time Again’ carries classic ETBTG feels, as does ‘No One Knows We’re Dancing’ which was inspired by the lack of a dance floor community during the pandemic with nods to the packed Sunday clubs that Watt used to DJ in throughout the 2000’s. A space and time that I personally loved and miss.
As we delve into the second half of the album 4/4 pace of the album eases off as slow cords and distorted synths take you to a calm place with ‘Lost’ evoking a dreamy atmosphere whilst Thorn’s ever present raspy voice before ‘Forever’ brings back a slight pace and presents itself as one of the stand out tracks on the album. On ‘Interior Space’ the unimaginable happens; Thorn’s sacred vocals are process through auto-tune with and unexpected fascinating result. Rounding off the album is ‘Karaoke’, which chimes familiar tones of EBTG tracks of the past whilst Thorn delves into her mixed feelings surrounding performing live, sadly a hint of the reality of any of us seeing them live anytime soon is fairly unlikely.
Thorn said in a recent interview with the BBC “there are lots of recurring themes of desperately trying to connect with people and then [there are] dreamlike lyrics of being out in a club or in a bar. All this stuff bubbled up from those periods of isolation, where we just weren’t allowed to do the things we loved for a long period of time” which is evident in the album and the lyrics.
You could easily say that EBTG are a band that have always evolved and you would struggle to pigeonhole them. To me this release is a melting pot of their journey. EBTG have released an album which is so relevant to the current sound of music, pulling from their vast history of releases and seamlessly intertwining touch points of their past whilst moving forward. It feels that this release is an unintended perfection of timing in waiting for the world to catch up with them to release the album that listeners from all stops of their journey will appreciate and enjoy. I write this only a few days after the release, and there’s still a lot to digest throughout the album. I mentioned earlier that all of their albums have charted in the top 40, though none have got to number one. At the time of writing this, they are battling Enter Shikari for the top spot in the albums chart. It seems that perhaps I’m not the only one that thinks ‘Fuse’ was worth the wait, and their patience is already bearing fruit.
3 thoughts on “April Album of The Month : Everything But The Girl – Fuse”
I’ve actually been an EBTG fan since their early days, and I was hugely into them in my teenage years, ever since I first heard early single “Each and Every One”. I loved the album Eden to death, and I’ve still got Baby The Stars Shine Bright and Idlewild on vinyl. They always stood out to me from their indie peers as being more sophisticated and grown-up, writing brilliantly constructed songs and unashamedly leaning into orchestral pop and classic songbook production.
Weirdly, I probably went a bit in the other direction to everyone else when “Missing” suddenly became a massive global hit. I liked it, but it become so ubiquitous for a few years that I don’t even know any more what I think of it when I hear it. It’s bit like hearing Groove is In the Heart. It’s just been played sooooooo many times. I enjoyed the album that it came from, ‘Amplified Heart’, but actually, I really didn’t get on with the follow up, ‘Walking Wounded’, which is ironic because that was the album that made them household names. There was a time whenever I was round someone’s house, and it got put on at some point. I mean, I liked it enough, but perhaps I felt like the EBTG I first loved – the slightly geeky, singer-songwriting EBTG – had gone cool and hidden themselves under a load of trip hop vibes.
I now suspect that I was being unfair, as Walking Wounded is clearly a really good album. But it’s funny how sometimes you don’t like the direction a band is going in if you’ve loved from early on.
So to say I was intrigued to hear the new stuff is an understatement, especially after so long. Hearing ‘Nothing Left to Lose’ as I was driving in to town one wet morning on the radio was a genuinely moving experience – it was like they’d tapped into everything I loved about them, marrying that trademark melancholy to Watt’s Buzzin’ Fly style production. It sounded organic and warm and I’ve been very excited to hear the whole album.
In many ways, it hasn’t disappointed. It’s an incredibly strong set of songs, and it manages to sound fresh and contemporary, which is an incredible for a band who first released music in 1982! But what has been a surprise for me is that it’s the ballads and slow numbers that have really got under my skin, and I think it’s because they are SO reminiscent of those early highlights in their career. I am just transported by a song like Run A Red Light or Lost. It’s made me realise how much I’ve missed Tracy Thorn’s voice and their songwriting.
I would say that, for me, it falls just slightly short of being fantastic. There are a couple of fairly average mid tempo numbers (Forever and Time and Time Again) that aren’t setting my world alight. And there is a tendency to indulge in a few lyrical cliches, so the sentiments can sometimes seem a little generic.
But these are small criticisms of what is a confident and accomplished addition to their already excellent catalogue. Welcome back EBTG, the world is a better place with you in it.
Great write up brother Nolan. It’s one of those long run-ups – with the first single out in Jan – with a short leap, as we try and condense the album’s impact into 2 and a bit weeks. Sometimes there’s a risk it won’t sink in before then, but as is the way on streaming platforms, we’ve already heard 4 of the 10 tracks before the 17 April. And truth be told, they had their claws in already by then.
It’s often been the case that most of our albums have someone who’s less familiar with the band or artist (think me, with any hip-hop album), but I think for once we all have some history with EBTG, or at least Tracey Thorn or Ben Watt. And for that, I can’t wait to uncover this and how it’s coloured our views of Fuse. For me, I came to the band where many others of my era did: with Missing. I was a clubber since my first days at Sheffield University in the early 90s, so when it came out it was a stalwart of the city’s house music scene. I’m pretty sure I have the CD single from HMV buried somewhere. But I didn’t really delve into the back catalogue at the time. I was either a traditional indie fan when it came to albums (think Blur, Oasis, Weller, Radiohead, ahem, Dodgy) some pop (but really chart compilations) and my burgeoning dance music tastes were mixes compilations. Missing may have been on a few, but I didn’t stop much to think about the origins of the original, let alone its artists, though of course I’d heard Tracey on Protection, in the same year. But they were in the back of my head somewhere, at least.
It wasn’t until Walking Wounded that I came across them again, but it was still a singles thing, with the excellent Wrong, and also b-side Corcovado (a track I’d later play in DJ sets, albeit via a remix). I flirted too with their final record, Temperamental, but by the late 90s I was starting to DJ and clubs and gigs were my core, and for a band that stopped touring and making music, they passed out from my consciousness. However, while they raised a family, my music intertwined with them ever since Watt started to DJ and formed Buzzin’ Fly, one of my favourite labels of the 2000s, its debut Lone Cat a classic, and for which I regularly loved promos, even exchanging emails with Watt over a few years. And at the time, in parallel, Thorn’s solo career became a love of mine, with 2007’s incredible Out Of The Woods igniting her vocal skills over four-four and pop stylings. I loved all of her solo work, and her Christmas album, Tinsel and Lights, is my festive go to. Watt’s solo career moved on from DJing to folk-driven solo work. I adored Hendra and Fever Dream being some of my favourite music of the genre, and I was lucky enough to see him live (and nervously meet him), as well as loving his and Tracey’s books (all worth checking out, especially Romany and Tom, his memoir of his colourful parents).
I think what I’m trying to say here is that, while EBTG passed me by (I was 8 when their first album was out!) I fell in love with the couple that made it via other careers and mediums. When the new single arrived, I was excited, while realising I never really knew or was into them as a group. A strange thing, but intriguing as I loved so much of what they were about: Tracey’s distinctive vocals, and ability to derive emotional, heartfelt lyrics over electronic music, and Watt’s kaleidoscopic musical background. And when Nolan pushed Nothing Left to lose to the group chat in Jan, and I’d recalled rumours of an album, I was hooked. The lead single was memorable, and very current, sounding much more like Bicep than whatever I’d expected. It really hit home – sparse, tight, focused, with those same haunting, urging lyrics that I’d come to love from Thorn. So was this the start of a renaissance, or one belting single from an ill-advised album?
The story of its genesis is also a fascinating one. Having stopped making music as a group, with family, illness, and other concerns calling a halt right at their zenith, it’s a strange prospect that a pair who were approaching 60 chose to come back. But it wasn’t a solid intention. Acknowledging the inevitable interest in openly planning a new album, the work centred at first around Watt’s piano loops and Thorn’s iPhone-recorded vocals. They even codenamed it ‘TREN’ (for Tracey and Ben’) rather than call anything an Everything But The Girl track. It took a studio session with Bruno Ellingham (producer of Macabees, Doves, Elbow, Little Boots and Ben’s solo work) for them to finally have to admit the tracks were worthy of the label, and the inevitable pressure that came with it.
But what is it as an album, and what does it mean to me? There have been some relatively over-the-top reviews which seem as much about the generation that have reviewed it and their relationship with the band as the quality of music, but it is a really great comeback. To have had all that time pass, and to have emerged with a collection of tracks that sound fresh, interesting and have something to say that connects is no mean feat. I may not have fully developed a connection with them all (yet) but some of Fuse are into my favourite tracks of the year. The album may not quite maintain that amazing momentum through its second half, but that’s a reflection of the quality of its opening salvo. I absolutely adore so much of this.
It’s fascinating to hear revealed that the album’s opening single – Nothing Left To Lose – was the final track to be made on the album. It’s such a striking, impactful opener that it feels like something dropped fully-formed, rather than the final piece of the puzzle. Having existed with different lyrics, it was when Watt slotted a two-step beat into it and Thorn turned the lyrics into a first-person that it clicked. Watt’s skills with dancefloor music runs through EBTG’s history, but this was something new, and it feels as relevant as anything on the album. It also combines both their lyrics – from Thorn’s verse to Watt’s ‘kiss me while the world decays’ chorus – that gives a glimpse into the alchemy that exists between a pairing that have literally shared their lives with each other for 40 years. Where two people can unconsciously understand what works for them – and referencing their admission that only music that they both were on board with, however great each thought their own efforts were, would get on the album – and it still mesh so well so long after their last album is something quite magical.
For me, even as the singles came out, and I loved them one by one, I wasn’t sure how this would fit into an album, or if it could really add up to a whole that would grab me. But while I loved Run A Red Light and Caution To The Wind – arguably one of my favourite tracks of the year already – how would they work? The reality is that, for the first half of the record, it’s flirting with dance/pop perfection. After Nothing Left To Lose, Run A Red Light could’ve been a loss of energy, but it feels like the lock-in session after the big rave. The way Thorn and Watt can evoke such rich characters, paint these pictures that all seem so familiar and strike such a chord – certainly with me – has really knocked me over, and connected with me in a way that have really hit me hard at times. Run A Red Light’s smoky, frazzled evocation of that small-hours, fuck-it-who-cares carry on is so well rendered: “Cashed up and all set / It’s a lock-in here until he says so / A little bump from a car key / Sit back darling, it’s all about us”. That well-worn tale of wasted weekends, is strikingly done, and also unwinds a number of threads through the album: the older couple, looking back to younger times, wayward behaviour, but also that celebration of culture and nightlife, in all its glory and its warts, something they talked about being so mourned over two years of darkened, quiet dancefloors and empty, unlit bars.
Caution To The Wind is a simply amazing track. EBTG could always ‘do house’ but this is right up there with the best they ever did. Perhaps Watt’s skills as a DJ and producer – which post-dated their last album together. 1999’s Temperamental – are what’s matured here, but it is without the best track on the album, winding through piano-led melodies with lyrics that talk of ‘home’ (whether that’s a club, a festival, or just your home, its universality is its beauty here) and feels right up there with their best work. When You Mess Up is an interesting left turn that I didn’t know what to feel about at first. It slowed the pace, but more than that, Thorn’s vocals were – in their words – ‘fucked up’. Pitch-shifted into something very non-Tracey like, they add a totally different element, even voice to the record, subtly distorted in the background, as if Thorn is talking to herself, perhaps soothing or excusing wayward behaviour. I struggled to get on board with it for a long time, but now it’s worked its way in. Closing Side A (sorry, it’s always going to be ‘sides’, deal with it) is Time And Time Again. It really is a light touch, 80s-influenced track with rich synths, talking of broken relationships and looking in from the outside trying to pick up the rubble, and both vocals working beautifully together.
And in the second half of the album, No One Knows We’re Dancing is the other huge standout that hit me right in the feels. Watt’s talked of this being a love letter to his 90s Sunday afternoons at his revered club Lazy Dog in Notting Hill, in fact you could almost trace the album’s sequencing through Friday to Monday, I think. The lyrics of this loose-limbed Sunday talk of the characters that inhabit that late-weekend world with such richness and bring back so many experiences and feelings that chimed with that picture. I didn’t (sadly) get to Lazy Dog, but I did make many others – particularly the raucous below ground chaos of Riot! at the End, and Secretsundaze’s open-air delights, as well as various festival survival sessions – and its portraits of those ramshackle collectives, those characters that you only ever knew in those particular rooms (some of whom are still my friends) brought so much emotion running back that I’ve often been overwhelmed listening to the track. It is something special to find music that makes you feel that way, and I have delighted in it. It’s a gift that feels so personal, as if written just for you.
The power – at that moment – does start to wane. After such a run of six outstanding tracks, it can almost be an impossible task to keep up. But I’ve also listened to the last 4 tracks least so it’s possible they’ll get their claws in too. I like Lost’s blending of the every day small losses then the emotional punch of ‘I lost my mother’, which hits unexpectedly. And Forever’s floating, woozy four-four washes over so pleasantly. Interior Space’s heartfelt, fuzzy vocals also works, but it can’t have the impact I’ve felt with other tracks. So I’m yet to fall for it. Karaoke does pull some of it back, flitting between Watt’s real-life tales from San Francisco, then Thorn’s musings on why we sing, or create, and what culture means, something that feels as important as ever in a decade where it feels almost constantly under threat from an uncaring, cruel elite. It’s thought-provoking and rich and intense, the production all so sparingly and carefully constructed yet flowing so smoothly, the lyrics partnering it so well, but it’s almost unfair to compare it to the the album’s first 6 tracks and can’t help but suffer in comparison.
But make no mistake, this is a fantastic return, and an album I am already falling for in big chunks. For a pairing that have been making music since 1984 in so many different ways, it’s wondrous they are still doing it with such skill and care and love, for each other’s gifts. I don’t know many acts that could come back 24 years on with something sounding as deft, and emotional and so fully realised as this. And that’s what adds to the lustre.
Going third with the write up is always a challenge. Separating what you think independently from what you think after reading other comments can be quite difficult. I’ve got loads of notes, some of which tie up with you’re comments and some that doesn’t.
My history with EBTG is old. My Mum and Dad (via Uncle Clive) used to play their early albums non stop. These albums were taped by me so I could listen on my walkman and in my room. This was a big deal. Not many artists / albums made the cut from living room to my nine-year-old self’s bedroom. This run of three albums, Love. Not Money, Baby the Stars Shine Bright and Idlewild was massive in my musical maturation. I feel pretty privileged to have grown up in a house where this was the kind of music I could steal from my parents.
However, I lost the band there. Obviously ‘Missing’ is a track that it’s hard to pretend didn’t in some way impact your life. It was everywhere, literally! I was 17 the year it was released … but it feels like it hung around for at least 18-24 months afterwards didn’t it. But, when thinking about it, I’ve not heard a complete EBTG album since Idelwild … and that includes all of B&Ts solo work too. There is no big message in this fact, as I always say, there’s a lot of music out there and if you’re going to actually have a connection with it, not that much time at all.
So I was really not sure what to expect when Nolan chose this album for AOTM. David chose, Nothing Left to Loose as a new track for Spin It or Bin It a few months back. I liked it, I didn’t love it. I suspected your reaction to it on on the blog was fuelled with nostalgia. Then we got three other tracks released pretty far ahead of the rest of the album. Again, I liked them, I didn’t love them. How many times have we had half the tracks on the album released as teasers thinking we’ll therefore know what the album will sound like … only to be pretty surprised on album release day?
First off, even though it stands out as the main dancefloor banger, Nothing Left to Loose makes so much more sense on the album than it did as a standalone track (for me). I am not sure if you guys might totally disagree with this comment but that’s how it works for me. It just ‘feels different’ on the album. It feels like it’s role is different as part of the album and that its much better at that role. I actually think this makes more sense given the fact that this was the last track to make it to the album … and they decided to put it in as track one. Bold. And it works.
Those wanting an album of tracks like this will either be pleasantly surprised or disappointed depending on your world outlook. You only really get one other ‘uptempo’ track, ‘Caution to the Wind’ perhaps, you might also count ‘Forever’ in this list but that track ends up feeling more like a mid-tempo foot tapper. You get a handful of downtempo tracks, all of which I like and a few other mid tempo intelligent pop tracks that borrow respectfully and effectively from the sounds of the late 80s and early 90s.
Tracey’s vocals continue to sound world weary whilst still managing to sound magical and always beautiful and moving. Lyrically, these tracks are so strong. I could read every word and enjoy them as much as listening to them. After such a long and productive career it would be easy to take this for granted. We really shouldn’t do that! These are special song writers that we’re talking about and they should be heralded in the annals of British pop music with the very VERY best.
You could argue that despite all of this beauty you could argue this album takes zero risks. Not a single one. It feels very safe. Almost aggressively so? However, you could also argue, making your first album, in how long, at the age of 60 is pretty big fucking risk! What they’ve chosen to do is to make their music, with nods to contemporary music, song writing and production. They’ve made an album that you hear very little like it. Not many artists write about what they’re writing about. We’ve talked about artists as they age quite a bit recently … but it’s tended to be artists our age breaking 40 and beyond and reflecting on their lives. This is an album pretty much from a generation ahead of that.
I am happy that this album exists. It’s not grabbed me 100% yet … but it’s so easy to listen to and easy to enjoy whilst being moving and thought provoking at the same time that I know it will be one of my most played albums of the year. I often make it onto the 2nd and 3rd listens without noticing.