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Everything But the Girl - Amplified Heart Music Album Reviews

Though their 1994 album became most famous for a surprise hit remix, Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt’s spare, pensive style never sounded more fully realized than here.

A phoenix rising from the ashes. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Pick a cliché we use to talk about resilience, and it can probably be applied to Everything But the Girl. The British duo’s career appeared dead in the water when Todd Terry’s club remix of “Missing,” the lead single from their 1994 album Amplified Heart, swept across American dancefloors, eventually carrying the song to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100—their first U.S. top 10 single—and paving the way for their reinvention as trip-hop/drum’n’bass fusionists on 1996’s Walking Wounded, the most successful album of their career. No one expected Terry’s remix to take off the way it did—certainly not Everything But the Girl’s UK label, Blanco y Negro, which had summarily dropped them a few months before.


Today, it’s ironic to think that the duo’s biggest hit was right around the corner, and some suit just couldn’t hear it. But at the time, Everything But the Girl had been twisting in the wind for a while, and perhaps it’s understandable that major-label A&Rs didn’t see the record’s potential, couldn’t fathom that pop music’s pendulum was finally swinging back toward the duo’s spare, pensive style, which never sounded more fully realized than on Amplified Heart.

If Walking Wounded is remembered as Everything But the Girl’s miraculous, odds-beating comeback, Amplified Heart represents the first time they got a second chance. Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt had been making music together, their creative partnership inextricable from their romantic one, since 1982. Not only had they outlasted virtually all of their post-punk contemporaries, but they’d put out six albums and traversed nearly as many musical styles: bossa nova, jazz, jangle pop, orchestral soul-pop, adult contemporary. By the time they released 1991’s Worldwide, a too-smooth-for-its-own-good record that was met with total indifference, they were running on fumes. “In many ways it was absolutely invisible,” Thorn wrote of the album (not “a dreadful record, just a not-good-enough record”) in her memoir Bedsit Disco Queen. They were an ’80s band with ’70s ideals, and the wan Worldwide suggested they just weren’t made for the new decade.

Worldwide came out in September 1991; a few months later, Watt’s health mysteriously began worsening. He was hospitalized for weeks, wasting away; doctors scratched their heads. Finally, they put him in a coma, opened him up, and discovered a rare disease, Churg-Strauss syndrome, ravaging his insides. Several times, he almost died. It’s not hard to detect signs of the experience carved into Amplified Heart. Written and recorded in the year following Watt’s recovery, the album presents a rare mix of austerity and optimism, fragility and determination.

The very first notes of “Rollercoaster” signal a newfound sense of purpose: There’s an unusual eloquence to the call-and-response interplay between double bass and synth that opens the song. It’s not only a matter of tasteful restraint; Thorn and Watt had done that plenty of times before. Here, the way the two sounds twine around each other, gliding fretwork mirrored by the synthesizer’s G-funk legato, feels as perfect an expression of two lovers’ self-sufficiency as anything in their catalog.

Across the record, virtually all of the fluff of their previous album—twinkling digital keys, flugelhorn and soprano-sax solos, reverb plusher than the seats of a luxury SUV—has been banished. The duo’s newfound minimalism came in part from Massive Attack, who, in the summer of 1993, had sent Thorn a cassette of demos for their second album and asked her to sing on them. But where the resulting “Protection” was foggy, skunky, stoned, Everything But the Girl’s approach to reduction sparkles. Pared down to guitar, standup bass, drum kit, and the occasional programmed beat, Amplified Heart champions the virtues of economy without sacrificing any of the group’s habitual luster. There are few elements in play, but every one sounds like a million bucks. And by rubbing away the generic sheen of high-end production that smothered Worldwide, the duo’s music breathes anew.

So do their lyrics. (On earlier albums, Watt had let his partner handle the bulk of lyric writing; here, each contributed five songs.) Though Thorn had long excelled at nostalgic snapshots and finely drawn character studies, Amplified Heart moves in the opposite direction, boiling down universal sentiments—loneliness, longing, confusion—into simple, indelible images. A turbulent love rolls like a freight train through someone’s life; a depressed woman eats her meals in bed, watching Saturday-morning cartoons with the sound turned down.

Only a fool would try to map the inner life of this most private of couples onto their lyrics (for years, interviewers tried, and failed, to understand their domestic dynamic), but Amplified Heart excels at giving voice to the inevitable frustration of any long-term relationship—particularly the occasional, nagging doubt that you can never really know your partner. “Even though I share your bed/Baby, I don’t get inside your head,” Thorn laments on “I Don’t Understand Anything,” and a few songs later she pleads, “Do you ever get me?”—her voice catching on “get,” clicking like a key unlocking an empty room. Balancing out the doubt is “We Walk the Same Line,” a deceptively chipper song about hanging in for the long haul that’s built upon memories of Watt’s hospital ordeal. The two had been through hell, and though they were loath to reveal too much, they were happy to drop artful clues. (In “I Don’t Understand Anything,” Thorn even hinted at a frustrated desire to have children—terrain she finally revisited on her 2018 song “Babies.”)

The album’s first side is the stronger, with a stellar three-song opening run (“Rollercoaster,” “Troubled Mind,” and “I Don’t Understand Anything”), a charming (if slightly cloying) he-said/she-said duet (“Walking to You”), and, finally, “Get Me,” an understated love song flecked with the faintest trace of house music. But the second half’s few failings—namely the jump from the maudlin “Two Star” to the perky “We Walk the Same Line”—are more than compensated for by “Missing.”

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What, 25 years later, is left to say about “Missing”? For a song that has largely been eclipsed by its most famous remix—and Todd Terry’s rework is a masterpiece—the original stands out in part for its quirks. The time-keeping cowbell is louder than you might have remembered it, and at first seems almost out of place; the first few notes of the bassline are dead ringers for the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me.” Almost immediately, though, Thorn draws you into one of her typically detailed vignettes, as the song’s narrator steps off the train and stands beneath the window of a lover from years ago, long gone, maybe dead. The song’s chorus—“And I miss you/Like the deserts miss the rain”—shouldn’t work; on paper, it’s just a hair too much. But singing it, their voices twinned in close harmony, they sell it. Thorn’s voice, in particular, is the very incarnation of yearning. At regular intervals, an eerie, synthetic siren sound—a key element of the remix that gets its start in the original—drives home the hurt. In the face of such emotion, any corniness in the metaphor falls away. Of course it’s a desert, it had to have been rain—these things are elemental, fundamental, and so is the feeling the song captures.

Far beyond the impact of Todd Terry’s remix, the sound of “Missing,” and that of Amplified Heart in general, has resonated widely. Its careful strain of folktronica set the precedent for Beth Orton’s Trailer Park two years later, and then a whole raft of tuneful, trip-hop-adjacent sounds. Fifteen years after the album’s release, its gauzy mix of guitars and drums resurfaced on the xx’s debut album. And Everything But the Girl themselves turned out to have the world ahead of them: two more albums as a duo, three children, parallel solo careers, and several acclaimed memoirs. The narrative around them is of a group rescued from the brink; it’s one of pop music’s great comeback stories. But the genius of Amplified Heart is that none of that was foreordained. Here, all you can hear is relief at being alive, and the hunger to hang on a little longer.


View my Flipboard Magazine.

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