British duo Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt, married couple collectively known as Everything But The Girl, radically changed their sound in the 1990s. From their earlier acoustic efforts as nerdy jazz-keepers of the bossa nova flame and melancholy pop artists. All of a sudden they turned into a house duo. After the release of Amplified Heart, something momentous happened – Missing – the second single was remixed by House Master Todd Terry, and it was utterly enormodome.
This was no fluke. Ben and Tracey had their ear to the ground and already proved their shapeshifting credentials with the mighty Massive Attack on Protection, Better Things and Hunter Gets Captured By The Game, for Batman Forever. Their next project would show just how intent they were. Their introspective brand of pop songwriting would sit side by side with, as well as inform, forays into drum n’ bass trip-hop, and electronica.
Marking Thorn and Watt‘s recent ascent into sexagenarianism – and with their new ‘reunion‘ comeback Fuse doing good business – a look back at the duo‘s most critical commercially successful album, 1996’s hypnotic and ageless Walking Wounded.
There was a period of time around the latter half of 2000 when I had, however belatedly, Everything But The Girl’s Walking Wounded on near-constant rotation. It may have been the duo‘s ninth studio album but I can safely say it was the first of theirs I’d got around to listening to in its entirety.
That was partly due to the music; unlike Dame David of Bowie’s noisy contemporaneous appropriations, Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt had taken jungle, drum n’ bass, and downtempo, stripped them down, and infused them with a hypnotic human warmth, and the resulting sounds were sleek, modern, effortless, and very soulful.
But more important were the LP’s lyrics, which were filled with stories of heartbreak, loss, and longing. At the time I was ensconced in an office job, atypically, working knee-deep in an anodyne building above the flagship HMV Oxford Circus in London‘s West End, and deeper still in a strange “unrequited love” territory that had hitherto been utterly alien to me.
In other words, head-over-heels for an object of lust who, though they were a fellow EMAP employee plying their trade just a few yards away across the open-plan shebang of Mappin House‘s fifth floor (they were at Select, while I flitted between Q and MOJO magazines), nevertheless the person seemed completely out of my reach.
So I’d often take the long way home after work and listen to Walking Wounded on my headphones in the solitude of my seat on the rear top deck of the 98 bus. And if I was really feeling sorry for myself, I‘d walk — wounded mentally if nothing else — and stroll back to the flat in West Hampstead through the flowering splendour of Regent’s Park and on to St. John’s Wood, over the famous zebra crossing at Abbey Road.
“Do you like being single?,“ she sang. Well, I thought I did…
Songs like Single, Before Today, Mirrorball and Good Cop, Bad Cop were a salve. When Thorn sang “It’s wrong to feel this way/I know it’s wrong, I know it’s bad/To only see what isn’t there/To want and want and never have” on the latter, she helped me sort through (and yes, sometimes brood and wallow in) all of the messed up, conflicted emotions that I had at the time. As Jason Morehead at Opuszine wrote at the time:
This is an album that lends itself to driving alone, late at night, while trying to figure out your own romantic endeavors and why they aren’t quite working out the way you planned. Everything But The Girl knows what it’s like, and this album is a comfort during those late drives. At least, it is for me.
That was, of course, over two decades ago, and those feelings have long since faded, and even seem a little ridiculous and overwrought with some time and distance. But what hasn’t changed is Walking Wounded, which still sounds as relevant, soulful, and heartbreaking as ever. All of which is to say that I was glad to see Pitchfork finally give the album its due in a thoughtful Sunday review. (Every Sunday, Pitchfork delves deep and posts a review of “a significant album from the past” that’s not in their archives.)
Each Everything But the Girl album has its own style and story, but the one on which Thorn and Watt’s individual gifts shine brightest is the one on which they stripped everything back. They shared their knottiest feelings, created dialogue with skeletal new sounds, and made the record in a much more insular way than they ever had previously. Its timely sonics and emotionally wrought themes spoke as much to teenagers, myself included, as it did the band’s adult contemporaries.
On such a strong and varied record, the title track stood out for me as the biggest gamble and a great payoff. Walking Wounded is gorgeously orchestrated with the spot on programming of John Coxon and Ashley Wales (Spring Heeled Jack).
Tracey loses none of her edgy, sometimes witheringly direct, delivery and the song seems to bounce and dance around her.
Brilliant adopters of sounds and styles that they are, Ben and Tracey harnessed DnB and shaped it to fit their needs, not the other way around.
Walking Wounded is just an utterly perfect modern slice of electronica.
And if you don’t agree, well, you;’re just plain Wrong.
Walking Wounded was originally released the first week of May 1996, and I remember it being touted as one of the first albums to blend pop music and electronica (though, admittedly, even now I don’t know how true that is). Anyhow, it would become the duo’s most successful long-player, selling well over a million copies worldwide.
More than deservedly, it was later released as a two-disc deluxe version in 2015 by Edsel Records.
Today, before and after, Thorn and Watt both reconstituted themselves as solo artists to follow, and authors of note (I’m currently reading Tracey‘s brilliant book about singing, Naked At The Albert Hall), are still loved up, and with, excitingly, that long overdue reformation finally here.