Tracey Thorn, of the now-on-hiatus duo Everything But the Girl, sings with the transparency of country air and the significance of Louis XIV furniture. Alone among her peers in U.S. and British pop, she moves from acoustic to electronic music as though no stylistic or psychological differences separate them. She is committed to and expert with both equally, so she never just larks around with beats or uses guitar strums merely to trumpet her seriousness. This has been clear since Thorn, more surely than anyone since Marianne Faithfull on 1979’s Broken English, rewrote the rules of dance vocals, singing on Massive Attack’s 1990 record Protection, and later joined EBTG partner Ben Watt in taking electronica to the artistic and commercial skies with 1996’s Walking Wounded and that year’s Todd Terry remix of “Missing.” More recently came a Grammy nom for singing, with her sublime unornamentedness, a remixed track with Germany’s great Tiefschwarz. These are singular achievements, even though Thorn, temperamentally unshowy, has never revved them up into a bid for Great Vocal Artistry.
Now comes Out of the Woods, her first solo album since 1982, and a masterpiece showcasing Thorn’s voice, songwriting, and taste. Working with such U.K. dance producers as Ewan Pearson, Charles Webster, and Tom Gandey—as well as others from Lisbon and Berlin—Thorn covers the late Arthur Russell’s “Get Around to It,” sings about the losses of personal frenzy and small ordinary moments in ballads such as “Hands Up to the Ceiling” and “By Piccadilly Station I Sat Down and Wept,” and uncovers various people’s quests for unboring lives in “A-Z” and “Grand Canyon.” Only Thorn’s voice could have strung these 11 tracks into a fantastic clutch of sounds with a seamless ratio of jump to consequence.