Tracey Thorn could re-record Earth, Wind & Fire’s disco apex I Am and still make it sound cripplingly sad. She is blessed—or saddled—with some of the most believably melancholic vocal cords that ever inspired throngs to shake loose on the dance floor. Her voice emerges from the deepest recesses of her throat and emerges sounding as though it’s been filtered through every sob she ever choked back in her life, seeming not so much raw with pain but purified by regrets. Sadder but wiser, as the Meredith Wilson lyric went. Even Thorn’s sweeping signature tune as half of Everything but the Girl, 1996’s monster hit “Missing,” was underneath its chuggy club beats and electric synth stabs a lovelorn song to slit one’s wrists to (in time with the music, of course).
Her EBTG material with husband Ben Watt is a best-of-both-worlds outgrowth of her grounded, romantic skepticism and Watt’s lush sensualism. Thorn’s 2007 solo album, Out of the Woods, was a schizophrenically compelling sonic breakaway from that template, bouncing wildly between uptempo, classy house-lite and crustier downer-pop, but her latest, Love and Its Opposite, divorces itself almost totally from the club scene. The album’s opening track and lead single is called, in fact, “Oh, the Divorces!,” and its lilting, Rufus Wainwright-ian undertones almost disguise its morose lyrical content: Realizing, with revulsion, that she’s reached the stage of life where she knows more people who have divorced than are still married, and unable to bear all those tense handoffs at the swing sets, Thorn wonders, “Who’s next?” (Thorn herself didn’t actually marry Watt until just last year, after they had been a couple for nearly three decades.)
As the opening salvo suggests, clearly this is an album aimed at the grown folks, not the club kids. It’s an album that doesn’t feel entirely comfortable at home (“Kentish Town,” a blood-red tribute to the namesake London neighborhood, a gorgeous dirge that’s all but crushed under its exceptionally low bassline) but feels even less at ease out on the town. As she asks in the supremely skeptical “Singles Bar,” “Can you guess my age in this light?…Can you guess my age in these jeans?”
The conclusions of Love and Its Opposite seem to be that it’s at least better to be disappointed on one’s own terms than to risk it on anyone else’s. Still, for as remote and guarded as Thorn comes off in these 10 vaguely embittered tunes (two of which are covers: “Come on Home to Me” and “You Are a Lover”), and for as sparse and reserved as their arrangements are, there remains one connective thread between this and Thorn’s lullabies of clubland: She still summons drama with just the force of her voice.