Unmade Road/Caroline International
Ben Watt earned fame as one of half of 80s-90s synth pop band, Everything But the Girl, along with his long-time partner and wife Tracey Thorn. Watt made the beats and music, Thorn the lyrics and sang the songs, or something like that. EBG haven’t done much since 1998, but Watt and Thorn have been making as solo artists. Thorn has released four albums in the past decade-and-a-bit, including 2018’s devastatingly beautiful, graceful, and amazing Record. On that, Thorn took stock of her life, her relationships, with Watt, with her children, with her friends, parents, and life. Watt, meanwhile, has just released his third album in the past six years, Storm Damage.
Watt, in addition to his work in EBG, is legendary for his turntable skills, having created a deep house Sunday night DJ residency back in 1998 that led to being in demand on both sides of the Atlantic as a DJ. He also owned a couple of London clubs and since 2003 has run the deep house record label, Buzzin’ Fly Records, which, oddly enough, is named for a Tim Buckley song.
I, however, have not thought all that much about Ben Watt since 1998, other than the kinda funny Pop-Up Video on MuchMusic in the late 90s for the Todd Terry remix of their track ‘Missing,’ their biggest hit. I am glad, however, I caught this one as it passed over my desk.
Both Watt and Thorn are in their late 50s, exactly a decade older than me. In the days of EBG, they were very much the cooler older couple to me, effortlessly so, as they reached global stardom. Now, however, they still feel like older cousins, but the distance has been breached, we’re all middle-aged, we can all relate to the same things, give or take fame (though I have had a brush here, in Montréal, I attained an obscure sort of fame as the historian of the old Irish neighbourhood Griffintown, eventually writing a book about it; but in 2011, I survived a heinous infection, and in my recovery, still around 50%, I was at the hospital for a follow-up appointment, and an elderly hospital volunteer recognized me as the Griffintown guy). But it seems that the things that we think about in middle age, at least for white, middle-aged, relatively comfortable, people, don’t really change.
Storm Damage is an album about relationships and distance, both physical and metaphorical. The music is centred in a trio, formed of Watt (synthesizers, production), Rex Horan on bass, and Evan Jenkins on drums. And it is that this is an electronic, ambient album based in live music that gives it its warmth. And from his position, Watt surveys the situation.
In the press notes that come with the album, he notes that the songs come from an ‘intense political anger,’ amongst other things. And whilst the general tenor here is dark, there is something that comes through Watt’s warm, honeyed voice that leaves us feeling warmed, and even heard, in our rage against the machine. Twenty-five years ago, Billy Corgan noted that ‘despite all my rage/I’m still just a rat in a cage,’ a feeling akin to what I touched on in my classic review of Pearl Jam’s Vs., and the track, ‘Leash.’ But whereas Corgan’s rage was just incoherent and lashing out, Eddie Vedder was also seeking to pull us in, to look inwards, and to see community around us. It was a more mature rage, and this is what I hear in Watt’s album, half a lifetime later.
The album opens with ‘Balanced on a Wire,’ which feels like the middle-aged Watt addressing his 17-year old self, and all the paths open to his youthful self. The 17-year old self was in a spot that perhaps most 17-year olds, at least in Western culture, have found themselves, where they could either discipline themselves or let it all hang out .
‘Summer Ghosts’ is a song about childhood and family, specifically, Watt’s, but in a lot of ways, it is universal song, and the music evokes a form of nostalgia. In a lot of ways, this covers territory he did in his 2014 book, Romany and Tom, about his parents and their marriage. But, lyrically, it’s the hook that is devastating: ‘When you look back/you find you haven’t travelled far/Thought you changed until reminded who you are.’ This is the kind of thought that is both devastating and truthful. We are who we were when we were young.
On ‘Irene,’ one of the most beautiful tracks on the album, Low’s guitarist and frontman Alan Spearhawk brings his talents to bear. Spearhawk’s voice is higher, more nasally than Watt’s, and provides a clear break, as Spearhawk asks Irene if she remembers the club she used to sing in, which was torn down last spring. Another paean to a world we lost.
‘You’ve Changed I’ve Changed’ is, oddly enough, perhaps the most optimistic song sonically on this album. Over an optimistic bass line, the drums beat, and the synths lay over. Watt’s lyrics recall a past life, the chorus ‘You’ve changed, I’ve changed/Through a door, stay the same/You’ve changed, I’ve changed/shed a skin, it’s no big thing.’ I like to see this track as a meditation on marriage and long-term relationships. Because this is how they work, we change and grow, and a successful relationship recognizes that ‘love will bend in high wind/love will shrink in the cold/love will flex at high tide/love will sway/love will twist.’
Taken together, this is a masterful album, not necessarily a captsone on Watt’s career, given his ongoing curiousity about the world, his constant seeking, but it is nonetheless a highlight of his career.
Half a lifetime later, it seems we’re still there, though perhaps whereas our 20-something rage was this incoherent
This is perhaps most obvious on the track ‘You’ve Changed, I’ve Changed.’
The album starts off with ‘Balanced on a Wire,’ where the 57-year old Watt speaks back to his 17-year old self.