What does the dancefloor look and feel like on Fuse, Everything But the Girl’s first album in 24 years? The answer isn’t always clear. On opener and lead single ‘Nothing Left to Lose’, which buzzes with urgency more than any hint of nostalgia, it serves as a vast backdrop to the apocalypse and a vehicle for pathos: “Kiss me while the world decays/ Kiss me while the music plays.” On ‘No One Knows We’re Dancing’, it’s a sort of imagined space that threads the stories of different characters in the same hypnotic loop, as told from the perspective of a man shut out from the world. And what about the weary and desolate ‘Interior Space’, which finds Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn evoking an “alien place” inside one’s own mind? Could that be taking place inside the dancefloor, too, in the darkness surrounded by strangers?
Everything But the Girl make mesmerizing, carefully crafted songs that are easy to slip into and identify with, but the beauty is almost always what’s bristling beneath the surface, or what’s just out of view. You can trace Fuse’s emotional trajectory by simply skimming through the tracklist – the apparent defiance of early singles ‘Run a Red Light’ and ‘Caution to the Wind’ precedes the wistfulness of ‘When You Mess Up’ and ‘Lost’. But spend time with ‘Run a Red Light’ and you’ll find that the familiar need for escape (“Forget the losers, forget the morning, put a tune on, put your feet up”) underlies a deeper longing for something ineffable, but captured in the fractured melancholy of the piano-led instrumental. ‘Caution to the Wind’ ups the tempo, reaching for the celestial in light of Thorn’s imagery; but the more she sings of home, the more its steady, comforting groove feels like a cycle that keeps the hidden fire inside burning. “Let me in, let me in, let me in,” Thorn pleads, even though it sounds like she’s already there.
There’s barely any reminiscing here – as the writing flits between observational and introspective, it remains locked in the present, wary of veering into sentimentality but still awash with emotion. And even as they pick up more or less where they left off with 1999’s Temperamental, what’s more impressive is that the duo finds new ways of expressing it. Not only does the album begin with an admission of vulnerability – “I need a thicker skin/ This pain keeps getting in” – but Thorn allows it to seep into her vocals, an imperfect tremble left exposed as the music softens. To that effect, they also make the refreshing choice of manipulating her voice, which you can hear warped and eroded on songs like ‘When You Mess Up’ and ‘Interior Space’. Far from diminishing their impact, the experimentation creates a stronger alignment between Thorn’s presence and the woozy, haunting soundscapes it occupies.
Instead of signaling a triumphant comeback, the songs on Fuse favor a mindful, organic directness that can feel especially poignant. The messages aren’t simple, exactly, but nor are they too esoteric or obfuscated. “I hate people who give me advice,” Thorn sings self-consciously on ‘When You Mess Up’, after giving some of her best: “Have a drink, talk too loud/ Be a fool in the crowd/ But forgive yourself.” ‘Lost’ tackles grief by naming all the ways it displaces you, the day-to-day losses that echo down from the big one. The weight of it can hit you anywhere, anytime, so the song doesn’t give us those details. But on ‘Karaoke’, the final track, the setting is clearly laid out. The singer observes and then joins the crowd at a karaoke bar, just like one would on the dancefloor, losing herself in a moment before her voice rises back up. “Do you see me?/ I’m standing in the light/ Are we feeling something?” she wonders, not trapped but revitalized. For all that’s lost, it’s a sense of purpose they hold on to.