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Everything But The Girl wrestle with expectation on Fuse

Release date: 21 April 2023
Everything But The Girl - Fuse cover
20 April 2023, 00:00 Written by Tom Kingsley

On Everything but the Girl's 1996 song "Single", Tracey Thorn sings, with hypnotic repetition, “Do you want me back? Do you want me back?”

It’s a haunting third act to the song, so it’s intriguing to hear that same soft, two-note vocal lick on “No One Knows We’re Dancing”, from the band’s new album Fuse. Is this deliberate self-reference? Unfortunately, that question’s subsumed in the fact that the lyric this time is not “Do you want me back?” but “Fiat Cinquecento” – a phrase so lacking in emotional resonance that Thorn might as well be parodying herself.

And perhaps she is. Fuse is Everything but the Girl’s first album in over 24 years, and arrives stifled with the weight of expectation. That expectation led to a slightly tentative music-making process: cut in secret at a riverside studio just outside Bath, the ten songs making up Fuse began life as a scrapbook of “ambient sound montages” and “improvised spectral piano loops” created on Ben Watt’s iPhone. The results are occasionally exciting, but more often than not Fuse sounds underbaked – an album suffocated by the fear of saying something new.

The album starts off strong with “Nothing Left to Lose”, launching into a punchy two-step beat that shows the duo’s knack for recontextualising British dance music. But this doesn’t entirely pick up where they left off with their last record. Where 1999’s Temperamental was lush and warm, “Nothing Left to Lose” sounds alienatingly artificial, as though it were designed to unsettle listeners. Then there’s Thorn’s lyrics – “Kiss me while the world decays” – which are less melancholy than cynical, even caustic.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album does little to consolidate some kind of identity or purpose. Those “ambient sound montages” form the backdrop to a number of underwritten ballads (“Forever”, “Lost”), while tracks like “Time & Time Again” begin promisingly before flopping flat just short of a climax. Some of the songs are genuinely baffling, such as “When You Mess Up”, where Thorn takes the role of a condescending mentor. When she invokes “a world of microaggressions, little human transgressions”, a dated vocoder effect distorts her voice, as though she were trying to hide from such terrible lyrics. The whole thing sounds like a bad draft of a worse idea – something Watt and Thorn should easily have recognised as sub-par and discarded.

And that’s the hard pill to swallow about Fuse. The album’s been in gestation for two years, and yet with a few exceptions the ten songs here sound like offcuts. It’s not that Fuse is actually that bad – but it feels like a futile exercise, a series of turns down paths which don’t go anywhere. Perhaps it’s an experiment that marks the stepping stone to something truly remarkable in a few years. For now, it’s hard not to feel that Thorn and Watt are deliberately trying to thwart our expectations.

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