Unpopular Advent 2018 – Day 5

Tracey Thorn – Record

Let me start by saying that I find it impossible to be objective about Tracey Thorn, so vital a part of my most formative musical experience has she been. ‘A Distant Shore’ is a record that more than any other defines a moment in (my) life where the swirling elements of end-of-teenage-hysteria coalesced into a defining consciousness. The planets aligned, and baby, the stars shone bright.

Falling in love with Tracy and Ben via their Cherry Red solo endeavours and their Everything But The Girl collaborations was as much about defining what I knew I was not as knowing what I was. Here was music that explicitly and implicitly acknowledged the feminine, music that challenged the expectations of machismo I sensed around me and that I struggled to fit in with. Hurrah! captured it best perhaps when they sang about feeling so strong but looking so weak and this was infused within in all of those records. Later, didn’t Saint Etienne sing about being soft yet strong and didn’t we make the same claims for some of the writing of Pelecanos as an inverted example of the same idea?

One rather senses this notion of ‘I am this and not that’ was invaluable to Tracey Thorn through those early years in particular, although one also suspects that she would embrace the idea that part of the delight of ageing is in opening those very barriers that keep us safe in our youth. I think this comes across in ‘Record’ which is, after all, something of an autobiographical record of her own journey (which she has also magically documented in the glorious ‘Bedsit Disco Queen’ and to a lesser, but no less wonderful extent in ’Naked at the Albert Hall’). It’s not necessarily that growing older opens more avenues to explore (and I’ve seen many who just stop opening the doors at all), it’s just that it perhaps illuminates intriguing pathways that our younger selves would have insisted upon avoiding (and for a whole myriad of reasons that no doubt made perfect sense at the time). What I notice more and more is that often the records and books I enjoy most at 52 are exactly the kinds of things my younger self would have found wildly uninteresting at best, or outlandishly repellent at worst. Several friends have said the same thing and all of us find it rather liberating, hilarious and entirely RIGHT.

All of which means that if you had told my late teenage self that in 35 years time he’d be loving a new Tracey Thorn album IN THE DISCO IDIOM he’d have thought you insane and doubtless made some disparaging comment about Thorn being a traitor to her roots, soul, art blah blah blah. And then he’d have photocopied such nonsense in a tatty fanzine for 25 of his friends to read.

With such hindsight, no?

So here we are, thirty five years on from that imaginary time-travelling conversation and yes, Tracey Thorn has made one of my favourite records of 2018 IN THE DISCO IDIOM. And gosh, who’d have thought we’d be saying it but here goes: Tracey Thorn is a National Treasure. She’s been on Desert Island Discs, so it must be so.

Tracey Thorn is a National Treasure and ‘Record’ is an inestimable pleasure (for the most part). ‘Queen’ is a stomping Disco flash of sliding-doors what-ifs and maybes (there’s the element of the time travel alternative universe at play here too). ‘Guitar’ is a bitter/sweet, hilarious/infuriating memoir/critique of the masculine ownership of the Rock realm. ’Sister’ is a diatribe on that same male-dominated space whilst simultaneously being an extended celebration of feminism and solidarity on the dance floor and across the barricades whilst storming album closer ‘Dancefloor’ makes a case for (dance) music as vehicle for escapism and solidarity.

For the most part then ‘Record’ is a record that isn’t afraid to couch its messages within the fabric of pleasure and abandon. Thorn has clearly long-ago learned that to be Serious does not equate to being glum and grey and thank goodness for that. Sure, I admit the temptation to take a knife to the grooves of ‘Babies’ is strong, but then again I’m male, childless by choice and, despite have spent most of my life working with children (teenagers, by choice. I wither at the thought of having to teach anyone younger than 11, and even that is pushing it), the whole notion of parenthood as lifestyle/subject for art of any kind fills me with what I admit is close to an irrational nausea. It’s my problem, I know, and I deal with it as best I can. Which here means editing the song out of the album playlist and lifting the needle when I sling the vinyl on the record deck.

You could then perhaps accuse Thorn of being somewhat indulgent on ‘Record’, but if being an artist in any medium is not an excuse for indulgence every so often then frankly what is the point of being an artist at all? Rigour and (self) control are valid and valuable, but only so much and only so far. ‘Record’ is Thorn’s record after all and for the most part we are more than happy to indulge her admissions, confessions, hopes and fears. She is, after all, a National Treasure.

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