Everything But the Girl’s ‘FUSE’: their elegant, unexpected, perfectly imperfect return (review)

Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt put their duo Everything But the Girl on hold in 1999, at the height of their success, right after releasing Temperamental. They’d already turned down an offer to open for U2 on tour the year before; they wanted to start a family, so they turned their focus to that. While they raised three children, they each worked on solo projects; that way there was always one parent who could be focused on kids. Despite many offers to reform and remaining a couple (after 28 years together, they finally married in 2009 “at our accountant’s suggestion”), they never felt a need to return to their group.

Then the pandemic hit and, like many people, Watt and Thorn found themselves with more time on their hands, and more time with each other. They began making music together again in Watt’s home studio, but they kept the pressure off by calling the project TREN (“Tracey and Ben”). Soon, though, it became apparent what this was going to be. Everything But the Girl were back. “We found ourselves asking, ‘What does an Everything But the Girl album sound like? Should it sound like we did in 1985? Or in 1997?’,” Thorn told TIDAL magazine. “In the end, we wound up thinking, ‘We’re here and now. Let’s see what comes out.’”

What came out was FUSE, the duo’s first album in 25 years, that is pretty much everything you could want from a EBTG record in 2023. They have covered a lot of musical ground over the last 40 years, from bossa nova to Sophistipop to cutting edge electronic music, but they basically pick up where Temperamental left off. Almost entirely electronic and in line with everything they’ve done before, the album manages to find new paths to explore without ever falling into “How do you do, fellow kids” territory.

“Nothing Left to Lose” announces their elegant return with a skipping, two-step beat, pulsing sub-bass and, like on Walking Wounded and Temperamental, Thorn’s still-spectacular voice sitting perfectly in the middle of the spectrum. “Kiss me while the world decays,” she sings in the chorus, sounding as wonderfully smoky and dolorous as ever, “Kiss me while the music plays.” As Watt has noted, pathos and euphoria is key to so much great dance music, and few do it so naturally as Everything But the Girl. This is another stunner — though Four Tet’s remix might be better.

When the smoke on Covid clears, FUSE may stand as the ultimate pandemic album, imbued with a “we’re alive, let’s go for it” spirit that still aches from everything we’d lost and everything we missed, from loved ones to social activities. “No One Knows We’re Dancing” fondly remembers the Sunday afternoon discos of the ’90s that sprouted up in cities like London (Lazy Dog) and New York (Body & Soul), while on wistful closing track “Karaoke,” Thorn sings “Do you sing to heal the broken hearted? / Oh you know I do / Or do you sing to get the party started? And I love that too” over a chilled out, ethereal backing.

The most moving song, though, is “Lost,” which began life with Watt’s opening lyric, “I lost my mind last week,” that inspired Thorn to type “I lost…” into Google and see what it suggested. It goes from the banal (“I lost my place,” “I lost my bags,” “I lost my biggest client”) to a real life gut-punch, “I lost my mother,” followed by “then I just lost it.”

Thorn’s voice, which has deepend and become more melancholic in the last 25 years, remains Everything But the Girl’s star attraction but for the first time they took measures to distort it. “We were desperate to fuck up my voice,” Thorn told The Guardian. “It’s one of the key signatures of the band, so it was the most fun thing.” Nothing on a “Believe” level, but “Karaoke” and “When You Mess Up” apply purposeful levels of autotune, and “Caution to the Wind” chops it up over a four-on-the-floor disco beat. It all works. “Caution to the Wind” could’ve been an alternate title for this album that that finds Everything But the Girl gloriously back, entirely on their own terms, and not missing a step.

FUSE is out now. Stream the album and its videos below…