Losing the electronic production flourishes that made her early work so distinctive might not have seemed like a wise decision for Beth Orton, but the singer-songwriter’s move toward a more straightforward, conventional folk aesthetic, which started with 2006’s Comfort of Strangers and continues on Sugaring Season, her first album in six years, actually works for her. There are no longer any bells and whistles for Orton to hide behind, and that allows her songwriting and extraordinary voice take center stage.
Orton’s writing has always been characterized by a strongly morose bent and a clever, idiosyncratic use of language, and those elements are even more prominent in the songs on Sugaring Season, which are some of the strongest of her career. “Poison Tree” uses striking nature imagery to consider how feelings of anger grow over time (“And it grew both day and night/Until it burned apple bright”), while opener “Magpie” takes a similar approach to matters of betrayal and loss, as Orton’s narrator dabbles in ornithology as a way to counter her overwhelming loneliness. What impresses most about Orton’s writing on the album is her ability to see her private emotions reflected in the world around her and to draw those parallels in ways that seem effortless.
Sugaring Season also showcases Orton’s newfound range as a vocalist. While the detached vocal style she employed on Central Reservation and Trailer Park worked exceptionally well within the contexts of those albums, the more intimate material here is better served by her lived-in performances. Orton’s never sounded as outright playful as she does on “See Through Blue,” the fantastic waltz she wrote for her daughter, and “Candles” actually includes the singer’s scratch vocal, giving the song a sense of spontaneity that contrasts with her typically reserved persona. There’s a real sense of vulnerability to her performance on the standout “Something More Beautiful,” a co-write with M. Ward, and the looping of her vocal tracks in the refrains of “Magpie” and “Dawn Chorus” find Orton experimenting with different timbres of her voice.
To that end, producer Tucker Martine makes smart use of organic elements to create the album’s lush sonic palette. The amount of reverb in some of Orton’s vocal tracks can be a distraction, but the arrangements on songs like “Call Me the Breeze” and “Something More Beautiful” are intricate and full-bodied. It’s a stark contrast to Martine’s barebones production work on Tift Merritt’s disappointing Traveling Alone. Unfortunately, Sugaring Season, much like Merritt’s album, suffers from a lack of variety in tempo. The album slows to a crawl in its latter half, and that sense of lethargy ultimately detracts from the things Orton gets really right throughout.