This album is a touchstone for me. It came out during the year I was living in Edinburgh still, but had finally moved out of halls of residence and into a proper student flat, conveniently situated above the famous (and sadly no longer there) Aquila Bianca chip shop. The change in my living conditions coincided with the change in my musical tastes, and I had most definitely moved from the ‘only buying stuff I already know I’m going to like’ phase to….
Well, to Eden, which is an album by a band I had decided I was going to like before I’d heard a note of their music.
I’m really not sure what that says about me and where I was musically at the time – I know I was ready to move on; I was listening to albums by bands I’d previously ignored, after all, but why did I suddenly start to take risks on things without having any clear idea of what I was about to get into? It might, after all, have been forty minutes of industrial noise terror or worse, unimaginative and bland pop music.
It might have been, but it wasn’t, and on some level, I knew it wouldn’t be. I had seen the name ‘Everything but the Girl’ in the music press, and it stuck with me – whimsical but intriguing without being deliberately ‘wacky’, it promised something out of the ordinary; it suggested artists who knew what they were about, and were in control of their music. Again, I could easily have been completely wrong about all of this, but something about the name worked for me.
Then I read an interview with them, and discovered that one of the band shared my last name. It’s not a particularly unusual last name, particularly if you’re Scottish, but it’s unusual enough that it doesn’t crop up every day, so seeing it in print like that also caught my eye.
I still didn’t have a clue what the music sounded like, though, but that really didn’t matter. You couldn’t exactly tell from the reviews in the music papers; they were always more about the reviewer than they were about the music, and in any case, I was ready to move on. I’d had my head turned by Talking Heads and The Cure and so on; I as ready for anything.
Even as a cool album-oriented kind of listener, it was still a weekly ritual to listen to the singles chart rundown on a Sunday evening – the singles chart in the early 1980s was a wild and lawless place, where you might hear the next big thing rubbing up against a novelty act or the kind of single Woolworths marketed to your granny. Dedicated fanbases could get singles by cult bands into the charts for a week or two, while established middle-of-the-road acts regularly sold millions of singles to people who had no idea of and no interest in what the NME or Sounds thought of their favourites.
So for a new single by a new band with no back catalogue to make the charts at all was something of an achievement; and it meant that I would finally get to hear what this music I liked actually sounded like.
The Sunday chart rundown wasn’t the place to hear your favourite songs in detail with a considered appraisal of their merits; there were 40 pieces of music to get through in two hours, and – allowing for the chat between each song, and breaks for news, weather and travel (but not for ads, this being the BBC), each single got around two minutes to show off what it could do.
In the case of Each and Every One, however, it was enough to convince me that I had been right all along. I don’t, at this remove, remember if I was surprised to hear this cool, jazz-inflected music coming out of my ludicrously large and bright red “portable” stereo; there had certainly already been music by the likes of the Style Council pointing the way towards this kind of thing, so I doubt I was stunned into silence by it, but I do remember thinking to myself that I was right; I did like this music, and I’d be buying the album as soon as it came out.
From that decision came one of the most rewarding relationships with a band and its members I’ve ever had. I mean, I say ‘relationship’; they produce, I consume, but there’s something about having a favourite band whose members turn out to be good people and – even better, from my point of view, accomplished and entertaining writers. It has meant that as Ben and Tracey have aged (and I have aged right along with them, we are pretty much exactly the same age, the three of us), I have stuck with them, reading their books and their Tweets, listening to their music, having a couple of friends with whom I go back a long way, although we’ve never met.
And – let’s be clear – if I was ever to be in the same room as either or both of them (delightfully, and somewhat unusually, they remain a couple to this day), I can’t imagine I would know what to say, and would likely pass on by. I like to think I’d offer a silent nod of appreciation, but I’m way too British for anything more.
It nice, though, this kind of ‘friendship’. With real-life friends, the best we can ever do is ask each other if we remember this or that event, some conversation we may or may not clearly remember; with Ben and Tracey, I can – as I am about to do – go over to the shelf, pull put an album like Eden and enjoy those conversations all over again, as fresh as the first time they happened.
Some music – maybe most music – you consume and move on; some – the best kind – stays with you through decades and miles, and can always be turned to for enjoyment and reassurance. Eden is one of those albums; I don’t have to wonder what I’ll make of it now, because I’ve been listening to it for nearly 40 years at this point, I know how I’m going to react, and that’s a big part of the joy of it.
As I pull it out of its sleeve, I’m briefly detained by the fact that it feels different; the sleeve of Eden has a texture to it. I don’t know the reasons for that, but I love that it doesn’t feel like the other albums on this list.
It starts with the singe, Each and Every One, which is just wrong, I’m afraid – the single goes at the start of side two, as I’m sure I’ve pointed out once or twice before. I’ve already mentioned the whole ‘cool jazz’ thing, and it’s immediately apparent that I’m in quite different territory to the music I’d been listening to before this. It’s still one of my favourite EBTG songs, partly because it is so different to the usual guitar, bass, drums thing.
I also love the lyrics on this whole album, they are much more like stories than songs; each of them painting an exquisite little portrait of a situation – Bittersweet is a bright bossa nova of a song, but it’s a proper grown-up lyric about – I think – a woman’s relationship with her parents, although you can read it as a breakup song. The tone of the music and the tone of the words are at odds, and it’s that kind of thing which has kept me coming back over the ears.
I have a complex relationship with Tender Blue – it’s a perfect short story of a song, sung in alternating voices, about an unsuitable and incompatible relationship. I used it as the inspiration for a story of my own, back when I was going through the inevitable ‘short story’ phase of my writing life. Every time I think about it, I say to myself that I really must go back and polish it, but in the end, I think me putting flesh on those bones doesn’t actually add all that much to the story. And I’ve never been sure I interpreted it correctly, anyway.
In one of her books, Tracey Thorn remarks that she may not, in fact, be much good at writing choruses. To which I say, when the song is of the quality of Another Bridge, who needs choruses. The power of the song is that it doesn’t recapitulate a trite chorus, instead it slowly (well, in truth quickly) builds to the statement of the title, which finally releases the pressure we hadn’t even noticed was building.
Choruses are over-rated.
With my usual youthful enthusiasm, I interpreted Spice of Life as a song from one woman to another after stealing her boyfriend – I think there may have been things going on in my circle of friends at the time – but looking at it now, and with the hindsight provided by Tracey’s book Another Planet, it’s clearly another look at her relationship with her mother. Looking at it from that angle, it takes on a whole new life and meaning. Of all the songs on side one (we’re still on side one), it has stayed with me the longest for its lyrical ambiguities and sense of frustrated communication.
I’ve been ignoring the music as I pore over thew words, so let’s just acknowledge that The Dustbowl features some superb guitar work which allows the song to weave its magic unhindered. It’s closest, I think, to the Aztec Camera stuff from a few weeks back, and perhaps indicative of where EBTG actually wanted to go.
Six tracks in, and we’re only halfway done – each track a breath of fresh air and a delight, partly because none of them overstays its welcome.
Side two opens by going back to the soundscape of the opener. Crabwalk is a jazzy instrumental, heavy on the trumpets and saxophones, underscored by the stand-up bass. It’s a late-night jazz club of a track, and a million miles from what I had been listening to. It definitely opened some doors for me.
Even So returns to the Spanish influences. It’s a melancholy tale of fading love, again propelled along by a cheery rhythm and occasional castanets – I love the contrast, and it fades perfectly into the next track, Frost and Fire, which replaces the cheery guitar with mournful Hammond organ and subtle percussion, as the lyrical themes carry over – it’s still about a love gone sour, but this time more bitter and certain about where the faults lie.
However, Eden isn’t just a sad breakup album; it also features Fascination, which is a kind of ‘sad new love’ song. Tracey laments that we all carry the baggage of past relationships into new ones, and does it again without a chorus, which again suits the subject matter very well. It’s a more straightforward guitar song, although the saxophone solo is delightful.
If I was listening to a concept album, by the time we got to I Must Confess, I’d be trying to plot out who all these people are, and how they relate to each other. I don’t think these songs really relate to each other in that way, but it’s intriguing to me to be listening to this set of songs after re-reading Lawrence Durrell’s Justine with its shifting views on inscrutable love affairs and betrayals and its non-linear approach to time, and feeling echoes of that in how these songs relate to each other.
The final track, Soft Touch is short and to the point. It’s a Ben Watt meditation on a turbulent relationship – again, having read his books, I can’t hep but impose his parents onto this lyric – simple and spare, it ends the second side much the way the first side ended, with no horn or saxophone arrangements, just guitar, bass and a quite piano line under Ben’s plaintive voice. The two halves of this album follow a similar trajectory and come to similar conclusions, that under it all it’s the hard things in life which make the best songs, and stripping away the extra instruments leaves you at the core of what the album has been about all this time – just people, ordinary people and the way they interact. It’s what all the best songs have always been about, and it’s why Eden still works after all these years.
I don’t think it’s a particularly ‘eighties’ sounding record, but I’m not sure it could have been made in any other decade. Listening to it again has only reinforced for me that – aside from the nostalgia – it is still one of my favourite albums of all, and while I’m not sure why, I like that I’m not sure why.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
Closest to Eden in feel would be the next three, although they very quickly moved away from the laid-back sounds of this, and on to something closer to what was going on elsewhere in the music scene. I’ll recommend Love Not Money in particular, but, honestly, every EBTG album has something to recommend it; the last of them move firmly into the dance-influenced world which the giant hit single Missing hinted at, but they remain Ben and Tracey albums nevertheless.
You should also listen to their solo stuff – every Christmas in this household is enlivened by Tracey Thorn’s delightful Tinsel and Lights album, and there’s a lot of good stuff to be discovered beyond that.
Compilations to consider?
The Best of album feels like a strange hodge-podge of an album to me; I’d stick with the earlier Home Movies, but I’m not convinced there’s a truly representative collection out there.
Not that I’m aware of, no.
All the books. If I have to pick favourites, Ben’s Patient is harrowing but ultimately uplifting, and his portrait of his parents, Romany and Tom, is absolutely terrific. Tracey’s Bedsit Disco Queen is highly recommended, but the previously mentioned Another Planet is one of my favourite books of any kind ever, and resonates so deeply with me because of how it describes what growing up when we did was like. It may have seemed unremarkable from the outside, but she absolutely nails what it was like to be a teenager as punk happened and we all felt we were missing out.