The defining sound of Beth Orton’s music has nothing to do with genre. The British singer-songwriter has never really been beholden to any specific musical scene or space, her music blending electronica big beat and buzzy psychedelia, baroque English folk rock and warmly atmospheric downtempo. Before the release of his debut in 1996 trailer parkOrton collaborated with The Chemical Brothers, and has since found herself in good company, her fellow collaborators including William Orbit and Fuck Buttons’ Andrew Hung, who lent sonic treatments and textures to her 2016 album. Children’s sticks. But Orton’s signature sound is simply that of his own voice, a versatile instrument that conveys both comforting warmth and vast emotional depths, seasoned and carrying a certain gravity since the time most of us heard her sing – a kind of world-weariness and wisdom drawn from an atypical and adventurous life, which notably spent three months in Thailand living as a nun at 19 after the death of her mother.
It’s Orton’s own voice, literally and figuratively, that animates his seventh album, Weather Alive, his first for Partisan Records as well as the end of a six-year gap between recordings. The first album where she is credited as lead producer, Weather Alive brings together the disparate but complementary creative impulses that have guided his career thus far, while offering new avenues to explore and unleash, with a few additional instrumental flourishes provided by collaborating musicians such as Alabaster dePlume, The Smile/Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner and Tom Herbert of The Invisibles. It’s a richly detailed and beautifully liberating listening experience, an inspired path of melody and sonic swirl that often feels like the music has taken on a life of its own.
Orton wrote all eight songs on Weather Alive by simple and skeletal means, creating melodies on a cheap piano with his own voice. This eventually became the starting point for a brilliant range of immersive arrangements and brilliant stylistic explorations, the likes of which make great use of his ensemble of enlisted musicians. But where instrumentalists such as dePlume and Skinner ostensibly play on the somewhat loose ground of jazz, the album isn’t so strictly defined. From its opening title track, Weather Alive evokes the latest Talk Talk records in its boundless expanse and enchanting possibilities, with Orton describing a kind of spiritual experience in accepting something beyond his control:Slipping from my hands/Falling from my grip/More than I can bear/Living again.” It’s not jazz, but its dissolution and convergence seems to be the result of some kind of chemical reaction produced by less strictly defined structures, Orton’s vocal performance – sometimes soaring and melodious, at others a whispering rasp – sometimes taking on an improvised quality itself.
Over all, Weather Alive is defined by its freedom, the joy and the dynamism of these songs stemming from their feeling of infinity. The groove on “Fractals” feels forever amid Orton’s bittersweet address of the moment”you stop believing in magicagainst Skinner’s jerky rhythms and dePlume’s soft saxophone breaths. She creates a breathtaking ambient blues in “Haunted Satellite”, the reverberations between the notes becoming the driving force of the song as much as a proper melody, while there is a compromise between the drift of the minor keys and the discreet funk on “Forever Young”. reflecting Orton’s lyrical back and forth between comfort and dread, singing, “Come back, my love, and see/Come and see what a mess/They’ve made of this.And while the bassline and chord progression rarely change in the jaw-dropping “Arms Around a Memory,” its haunting, gradual evolution amounts to a chill-inducing climactic moment.
Weather Alive adheres to a particular trend in Orton’s work in that it does not adhere to any trend, other than one that sees her take even greater artistic risks each time she makes a new visit to the studio . This constant instinct to seek out a new creative spark, to leave nothing beyond his own writing to define it, is what has led to a new high nearly 30 years into his career. It says a lot that her best album is the one in which she takes the lead as producer – a reaffirmation that the most precious voice worth listening to is her own.