‘A lot of gardening is about trying to control nature and make things go the way you want them to,” Tracey Thorn says about her London greenhouse. “Inevitably, nature wins; you never quite get what you want and are left exasperated. But it’s actually a salutary lesson and humbling. If you catch me in autumn, I’m a broken digger, looking at my ruined lettuces. And then I start up again every spring with enthusiasm and determination. It’s an interesting, yearly trajectory.”
Judging by Love and Its Opposite, her new album—the second since she went on hiatus from Everything But the Girl in 2001—Thorn, 47, is in an autumnal mood. The album contemplates the move into middle age charmingly and with amused self-awareness. But it’s less about a midlife crisis than a life well lived. A salutary lesson, if you will, with notes of humility.
Thorn has had a long and remarkable career. After her first band, Marine Girls, broke up in 1983, she formed Everything But the Girl with now-husband Ben Watt. The duo released eleven studio albums between 1984 and 1999, pioneering the fusion of electronic music and pop and creating the massive nineties hit “Missing” along the way. In 2001, she quit music to care for her kids with Watt: twin girls and a son. “I wasn’t happy trying to be Mum all day, then getting dressed up to go onstage,” she says. “I hated that.” She then made an assured return in 2007 with the solo album Out of the Woods, an acclaimed balance of beats and melodies.
Love and Its Opposite is a near-flawless follow-up, at once more intimate and more powerful. It opens with Thorn’s still-youthful voice and a simple piano figure; on more than one song, you can hear fingers moving across guitar strings. Even the more exuberant numbers have elegant arrangements, like the hand-clap-accented beat of “Hormones” (“Yours are just kicking in / Mine are just checking out”), a funny and moving snapshot of volatile tween-mother relations. “Long White Dress” recalls Thorn’s horror, as she says, at “the whole sort of romance stuff that surrounds weddings.” She and Watt didn’t marry until 2009, after 28 years together. The ceremony took place in a registry office, and it “literally took about four minutes,” she says. Then “we threw confetti around and had lunch.”
Thorn is indisputably a pragmatist, yet Thorn is flirting with an almost Proustian nostalgia, even researching her family tree. “There’s a church I drive past regularly where my great-great-grandparents married,” she says. “My kids are fed up with hearing about it. Every time we go past, I say, ‘That’s the—’ ‘Yeah, we know, Mum! Some old people got married there hundreds of years ago, yeah.’ ”