Rock music hasn't traditionally been the musical genre that best expresses vulnerability. Teenage angst maybe; romantic loss certainly. But that frightening revelation that usually comes well after adolescence -- that nudge from the universe that lets you know you won't live forever and, by the way, you're on borrowed time right now -- isn't easy to convey with three-chord rock.
Ben Watt of Everything But the Girl has some experience with cosmic nudges. The 34-year-old London native lived through a life-threatening illness four years ago that changed his life and music forever. He'd contracted Churg-Strauss syndrome, an autoimmune disease that many of his doctors had never heard of, much less treated. Watt recovered, although he must adhere to a strict diet for the rest of his life.
Earlier this spring he and partner Tracey Thorn released a new album, the aptly named Walking Wounded. Their new music is a quantum leap away from the alluring pop/jazz of their Eighties period (as defined on their 1984 debut album Eden), and into the sort of breakbeats and grooves found in techno, house, jungle, and drum 'n' bass. In slivers of free association, the lyrics reveal feelings of alienation, fear, vulnerability, and sadness. Although Thorn and Watt are a couple, by all accounts the latter's illness was a strain on their relationship.
Everything But the Girl's nervous and dreamy new sound evolved after a collaboration with the U.K. dance conglomeration Massive Attack; they'd taken a baby step into synthesized beats with their last album, Amplified Heart. And now on their latest release they're full tilt into the new sound. Throughout the album Thorn's smoldering, melancholy alto floats above a stuttering, synthesized beat.
Speaking by phone from a tour stop in San Diego, on the second leg of their current U.S. trek, Watt admits that his illness was a factor in changing the band's sound. "I certainly think it made us look for a more extreme way of expressing ourselves," Watt muses, "because the songs became more extreme. The songs became less reasoned, less rationalized. They became more about vulnerability in the face of adversity. There were more questions being left unanswered. The songs became rawer, and we just needed to find a new context to start expressing these things."
There was also the embarrassing fact that all those lite jazz radio stations were playing Everything But the Girl's pleasant jazzy pop alongside the likes of Kenny G. "I certainly felt that the production techniques we ended up with by the beginning of the Nineties were very dated," Watt admits. "It was time to move on from those records, but the only thing we could think of at first was to go back to first principles, to the minimalism of arrangements and Tracey's voice. From that point we started to bring in new ideas, new beats, new textures. You can see the evolution start on Amplified Heart and gradually pick up speed through the collaboration with Massive Attack, through to Walking Wounded."
On that album, achingly sad and lovelorn lyrics sung by Thorn touch one part of the musical pleasure center while the nervous, chattering beat acts on another. That beat not only serves as a subtext, but backs up on itself and subverts the singer. Rather than driving the listener crazy, however, it creates a pleasing sort of push and pull.
Watt agrees: "It's the tension within the record that matters to us, that attempt to place the human and the melancholy and the languid against the robotic and the neurotic, the dark and paranoid," he says.
Watt isn't alone in finding more experimental verve in dance music than in rock these days. Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan has decreed that his band will change direction and most likely go in a "nonrock," synthesizer-driven direction, away from their traditional guitar-based sound. Watt laughs at Corgan's statement. "It's probably because he saw me DJ-ing after the MTV Awards!" But seriously, although his band is considered part of the so-called post-rock movement, the Briton thinks all this talk of rock being dead is "overstating the point."
"I do think rock music has ground to a halt again," he concedes. "That's not to say that it's not going to be reborn. I'm convinced in three, four, five years there will be a new Kurt Cobain who'll redefine the groove, and rock music will be reborn and up and running again in a form that we can't yet anticipate. But until that point I think the most progressive ideas are happening in dance culture. It's crossing over with pop culture and more traditional areas of songwriting. It's the sound that's in the ascendancy right now."
Watt and Thorn not only have a new album and tour; in September Viking/Penguin published Watt's book Patient: The True Story of a Rare Illness. And since he and Thorn departed their U.K. label WEA, they've run a fan-friendly Website (www.ebtg.com) filled with biographies, tour diaries, set lists, and excerpts from Watt's book. To keep the Web page fresh the musician carries a Powerbook with a modem on the road, so he and Thorn can input new information constantly.