THERE’S A REASSURINGLY FAMILIAR MOMENT, IN THE FIRST FEW BARS OF SUGARING SEASON’S OPENING SONG MAGPIE, WHERE PICKED ACOUSTIC AND OVERDRIVEN SLIDE GUITARS ENTANGLE AND SUGGEST THE IMMINENCE OF BETH ORTON’S VOICE IN A WAY THAT RECALLS THE SPINETINGLING ENGINE START OF STOLEN CAR (FROM 1999’s CENTRAL RESERVATION).
That album was a spectacularly sturdy follow-up to TRAILER PARK (1996), and both represented something quite different in the female singer/songwriter genre at the time.
They called Orton “the Comedown Queen” and, certainly, a blissful but elegiac undercurrent is something which continued throughout 2002’s DAYBREAKER and COMFORT OF STRANGERS (2006).
Here, on Beth Orton’s first album in six years, we do get more of the same – but something new and different, also.
Where COMFORT OF STRANGERS sometimes felt like a bit of an underachievement, a tad awkward and unfinished, the self-contained SUGARING SEASON revels in its own warmth and completeness. It feels in tune with itself, utterly at ease and accepting – and effortlessly classic. It is, pretty much, the album you always hoped she might make.
Orton has become a mother, twice over, since we last heard from her, and wrote much of this album in the wee small hours. You can hear it – tiredness, resignation, elation, thankfulness. Night sky creeping in, darkness coming and going, dawn breaking. Beginnings, endings. Stillness. Nowness.
Occasionally Orton’s lyrics are magnificently obscured by the sound of her voice and the meter of her delivery as they subsume almost completely into the sound of her band. Influences Nick Drake and John Martyn, and maybe even Van Morrison, in his early and more pastoral days, are never too far from reach as the transcendance of the vibe seems to become the keypoint of the song – as if Orton gets totally lost in the moment to find deeper connection through surrender, or pushes on to find some mythical higher ground.
She actually gets there pretty early on.
Perhaps it is the richness and maturity of her voice that raises an eyebrow at six year’s remove, but the gorgeous CANDLES is as surprising as it is stunning. Orton sings in a voice one would not quite expect – holding on to the air in her lungs and seeming to pitch ever-so-slightly higher than her usual range, as if all those top end grace notes we’ve become accustomed to down the years have been gathering together somewhere in an unseen space and setting about their own songwriting.
There are a couple of gorgeous moments later on, during POISON TREE, where the same thing happens but sounds entirely new. When a violin soars in for some folk-style cresting, it feels as if Orton is rowing across from some timeless distant shore.
During the serene DAWN CHORUS, and seemingly out of nowhere, an absolutely delightful river-breeze accordian solo blows sweetly through the acoustic scampering and right over the generally fuzzy low-hanging mist of melancholia. It’s enormously uplifting.
LAST LEAVES OF AUTUMN props Orton against a piano to see what happens (both Orton and the piano win), CALL ME THE BREEZE (not the JJ Cale song) is as lively as it gets, hammond organ swirling away without ever overwhelming, and STATE OF GRACE moves up and down the scales with an eye on the horizon, stepping on towards album closer MYSTERY. It’s a terrific climax: “Alive, alive, alive, alive” she sings.
Despite the slower pace these days, Beth Orton has never sounded more so.
SUGARING SEASON is released on 1st October by ANTI Records.