Everything But the Girl’s 'Fuse' pulsates through pain and joy
The British duo’s first album in 24 years is a welcome portrait of togetherness amid isolation
By Kristi York Wooten
Pop music is flouting its “new normal” this spring: despite wars, inflation and lingering viruses, Lana Del Ray’s tragic ballads and Miley Cyrus’s revenge anthems embrace the uncertainty of now without pondering what has been lost. Yet one new release addresses the question other hitmakers won’t: What should life sound like after a pandemic?
“Do you sing to heal the brokenhearted? Do you sing to get the party started?” Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt wonder on “Karaoke,” from Everything But the Girl’s latest album, Fuse, out last week.
It took a global shutdown for Thorn and Watt—one of the most celebrated duos in British pop music—to record together for the first time in 24 years. The married couple was not on a mission to write an album when they began experimenting with home recordings in the early days of the pandemic. But the two accidentally stumbled on songwriting’s ability to mitigate loneliness and emptiness with intimacy and memory.
The project forced Thorn and Watt to meet in the middle of a four-decade union yielding eleven studio albums, 31 singles including 1995’s no.1 “Missing,” three kids, solo careers and progenitors from The xx to Billie Eilish.
In the ensuing years, Watt wrote a memoir about the deaths of his sister and parents, made a trilogy of heartfelt albums with collaborators like Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour and Suede’s Bernard Butler, and became an advocate for his local marsh preserve; Thorn caused a splash as an erudite New Statesman columnist and put out a string of books and albums including a 2012 roundup of Christmas songs and 2018’s feminist banger, Record.
If EBTG dressed their 1980s and 1990s catalog in jazz-inflected pop and electronic ambience, Fuse counters the interpersonal conflicts of being holed up while a deadly virus rages across the world with a pastiche of nonlinear rhythms, synthetic beats and raw emotional tensions. A series of music videos accompanying the album depicts two dancers pressed together while moving fluidly through dimly-lit, sparse rooms. “Run a Red Light” is a fever dream of reclaimed desire, tempered through the frosted glass of age and experience— a piano ballad disguised as a lovers' night on the town, where the only people who exist are the two of you.
"Interior space" is the aural equivalent of the 2017 photograph of a man in war-torn Aleppo playing his phonograph alone in a destroyed bedroom, where melody becomes a lifeline to a new existence. It's about what mirrors reflect when no one is looking.
"Caution to the Wind" is a breathless dance number with handclaps that declares, “the sky is a cathedral, and I’m home,” and makes the listener long for late nights in clubs inhabited only by memories of youth. These were the kind of tight spaces the digital generation may never experience, windowless caverns where Watt spun records while recovering and adapting in the mid-1990s after Churg-Strauss syndrome, a life-threatening autoimmune disease he chronicled in his 1997 book, Patient.
Fuse is bare-bones, bare soul stuff for a society that craves human conversation, cafe culture, sweaty bodies on a dance floor, touch not proffered by dating apps or zoom meetings or doom scrolling or TikTok videos. The music is imbued with feeling, partly because the listener is assumed to desire it so desperately. The closer Thorn and Watt get to each other at the microphone, the more warmth radiates through the songs.
The permission to forgive in “We All Mess Up” is a therapy session for this era of collective mental health distress. “For God’s sake, have a cigarette,” Thorn’s alto pleads as a computerized version of her voice whispers “little human transgressions” in her ear like a devil on her shoulder. “But forgive yourself, forgive yourself,” she sings.
“Forever” begs us to rid ourselves of “all the things that get in the way" of living. It’s set to the kind of house music beat Thorn commanded in “Protection,” her 1994 collaboration with Massive Attack. An earlier version of the song contained a recording of a voice message saying "Call Me Back," and it brought to mind the answering machine messages from the Twin Towers left for loved ones on the morning of 9/11 or missed calls from a sibling or a child. Perhaps it was made on a pay phone in a long forgotten place where the sound of a friend's voice mattered more than emojis.
By the time “Karaoke” arrives, only an elongated synthesizer and questions remain: “Are you feeling something?,” the duo sings. “Do you see me? Are we feeling something?”
When answers are elusive, the music abides.