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ON EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL AND THE MUSIC THAT BEGGED ME TO LIVE


written by

Montrell Chandler

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Music provided an escape and encouraged me to get on with my life. Quarantine wasn’t spectacular I admit, but I had YouTube.  It was beat-therapy, a journey with several excursions. What started with Bristol trip-hop pioneers Portishead, and their ground-breaking Dummy, I soon stumbled upon Total Science and A Guy Called Gerald. Before I knew it, there were two tensions clashing for attention: chilled-out beats and sub-bass heaven. Enter Everything But The Girl. Weaving those skeletal sounds with the complexity of their decade-long relationship, I discovered a masterpiece, Walking Wounded.

*

A little under an hour, heart-tugging chords open into Before Today,  a dreamy number drenched in crystal-clear architecture. Tracey Thorn strolls in, singing about Ben Watt, her romantic partner, and the group’s main producer. “I don't want excuses/I don't want your smiles/I don't want to feel like we're apart a thousand miles,” goes Thorn over the drum n’ bass pattern. Her voice rivaled John Coltrane’s sax, an instrument I loved for its drug-like capabilities.

I set out to discover the evolution of their sound. They appeared to be enigmatic, going through a series of off-kilter shifts that brushed aside old conventions with each album. Walking Wounded was released in 1996, but for a decade prior, EBTG had shifted from acoustic folk to diet-Smiths.

Gentle but weightless, glossed-over Worldwide left the duo at a crossroad in 1991. Blanco y Negro, a subsidiary of Warner Music, wanted a hit and didn’t entirely believe they were capable of delivering.

Watt began to experience intense bodily pain that intensified during this time. After he was diagnosed with Churg-Strauss Syndrome, the group’s career came to a complete halt. But had it not been for this life-threatening disorder, the seeds that led to WW may have never been planted.

*

Over the course of the next year, as Watt found health and Thorn embarked on a new journey into trip-hop, the duo began to put the pieces back together.

Thorn was tapped by Massive Attack to provide much-needed vocals during the recording of their second album in late ‘93. During the sessions, she described the collective sound as slow and empty, a perfect descriptor for what became “Protection”. The title track captured the gravity of her voice and improved pen.

Elsewhere, Watt had found solace in nightlife. By stepping foot outside he found ample distraction and new perspectives. Drum n’ bass and Jungle, two charming sounds as fluid as the space they dominated, were catching on in London in his recovery. Legendary d&b artist LTJ Bukem was at the forefront of this movement, creating Speed, a night of liquid drum n’ bass, alongside Fabio. After an invite, Watt joined the crew for a night that changed his trajectory. In time, Thorn came along. Into their 30s, the duo had found hope on the dance floor and in the spirit of a new movement.




Amplified Heart, the lead-up to WW, was released in 1994. By all accounts, the majority of the album was proto-EBTG, save for one track, “Missing”. Atlantic selected Todd Terry, legendary dj/producer, for the house remix. Over the course of several months, the track caught on in various Miami and New York nightclubs. A dance anthem had been born, slowly, as the group moved towards the future.

In the wake of a near-death experience, Watt sought to relinquish his past onto the page. The lyrical balance teetered between the duo in a game of call-and-response throughout the album. Where one gave space, the other filled the gaps.

The tension is most evident on “Flipside”, a trip-hop-infused number. Written by Watt,  Thorn’s muddled vocals recall traumatic moments:


London, summer '92:
I think I've changed a lot, since then. Do you?
Ideas that I'd held for years,
Emotional baggage, hopes and fears
Seen somehow in a different light:
Not as wrong, but not as right as they seemed before.
Was I different, then? Have I changed?
Will I change again?


As it ends, further reflection ensues:

Does all of this depress me?
I won't listen. I won't talk.
A weightless life. I moonwalk.
I mean a lot, I mean a little.
I'm supple, brittle, pig in the middle.
There's resilience inside my face, but sometimes nothing.
Deep space...


What I feel and what I fear
Is always here, my atmosphere.


On the flipside, wrapped under a slick, sensual beat, Thorn examines complicated feelings in “Heart Remains a Child”:

And I thought that I'd outgrow this kind of thing.

Tell me, aren't we supposed to mature or something?
I haven't found that yet, is this as grown-up as we ever get?
Maybe this is as good as it gets.

And years may go by, but I think the heart remains a child.
The mind may grow wise, but the heart just sulks and it whines and remains a child.
I think the heart remains a child.

Why don't you love me?



At their best, EBTG were a dynamic force, mixing reflective lyricism and cutting-edge production into this lifeline for me. WW is by far their best-selling album, a critical darling with endless replay value.

When they reached their finality with Temperamental, the sphere of their various sounds reign free: “Tempermental” is a four-four haven, “Blame”, an exhibition of Watt’s d&b prowess, while downtempo-infused “Low Tide Of the Night” meanders around the distracting quality of London night life. “Inside out in the daytime/outside-in in the night time”, hums Thorn.

In the liner notes of their 2015 deluxe reissue, the duo described their swan song as “the sound of a band coming to a natural end.” In the years after, the duo released several remix and greatest-hit compilations (featuring Photek, Fabio, and many more). EBTG developed as a butterfly does, slowly, before blossoming into a majestic creature. 

Their evolution reminds me of my strength and resilience in the face of trauma. I’ll never grow tired of Tracey’s voice, or the production that so effortlessly fills the gaps during down days and lonely nights. All I have to do is press play and relax, humming along:

Out amongst the walking wounded
Every face on every bus
Is you and me and him and her

And nothing can replace the us I knew