Days Between Stations: Beth Orton–Riveting or Boring? (08/02)

Beth Orton, the 31-year-old singer from Norfolk, England, has a new album called Daybreaker (Astralwerks/Heavenly). It demands attention because Orton is a fascinating, perplexing artist. She also has a remarkable ability to bore a listener almost to death.

Orton first made her name on other people’s records, working in 1995 with William Orbit on “She Cries Your Name,” reprised on her 1996 solo debut Trailer Park, and with the Chemical Brothers on “Where Do I Begin” in 1997. Those hits brought Orton praise as an exemplar of techno-folk (a genre previously nonexistent outside of Serbia, where it was known as turbo-folk), but no genre marking can attach itself to Orton. That would be to her credit, were it not that from Trailer Park to the celebrated Central Reservation (1999) to Daybreaker, no single tag can survive the vagueness of Orton’s emotional position on so much of what she might be writing and singing about at any given time. She’s not always vague, though.“Galaxy of Emptiness,” from Trailer Park, carries perhaps the most ridiculously self-parodying song title since Jackson Browne’s “Fountain of Sorrow”—but the song itself is riveting. The nowhere the piece meanders to becomes a real place. It becomes a place that Orton, as an artist, can return to: her territory. The quickness of a single phrase—the slight rush on “Oh you better” at the beginning of “Devil Song” on Central Reservation—can signify a greater emptiness, a closer horror, than anything from Tom Waits or Aimee Mann, who are always afraid in their music to let you take your eyes off of them for a minute.

Across the five minutes of “Devil Song,” Orton is looking for a way out of the self-presentation any performance demands, a way out of the song: looking for a complete affirmation of the dismissal the song embodies. Dismissal of what? Whatever you can name. Indistinct melodies, trite lyrics, self-absorbed vocal tones, solipsism and narcissism course all through Orton’s music, but it’s exhilarating to hear a singer who, in a moment that changes the lead of her music into gold, makes it clear that as she erases herself as she sings, she is also erasing you.The sensitive woman with a guitar, the doe-eyed enchanter from spectral realms who walks this world in old jeans, is no less present on Daybreaker than on any of Orton’s other records. The tough, unforgiving person who began Central Reservation with “Stolen Car“—one of the most mysterious, indelibly crafted recordings of the last few years, again and again almost breaking into pieces over the tiny shifts Orton makes around the central phrase “every known abuse”—is harder to find. An eagerness to please washes across the new album. A thick, suggestive beat opening the title song floats into the air and stays there. The cool, swift acoustic guitar figure that starts “Carmella” becomes an exercise in maintaining an artificially high voice. As a lyric, as an arrangement swirling around guitars that sound like strings or vice versa, the number is close to “Stolen Car”—the way a tracing is close to an original. In “Stolen Car” the singer went into the song and the song swallowed her up; here she stands apart from the song and admires it.It’s what at first might seem to be the dullest number on Daybreaker that turns out to be its open door. “Anywhere” begins with what sounds like a sample from an old film soundtrack. It takes only eight scratchy seconds to signify the promise and danger of romance—and then Orton comes on like Astrud Gilberto in 1964, lounging in “The Girl From Ipanema.” She’d do anything to see you smile again, she says. But while the singer is happy to drift through the thirdhand music, something in the way the music is thirdhand—in the way it’s been around, traveling in and out of every sort of film noir, spy movie, murder movie, one-last­score movie, decadent sex and money movie—pulls against her. It pulls the singer into a story bigger than she is, where she can’t find her footing, where all she can do is repeat the same phrase, “I’d do anything to see you smile,” which now communicates as “I’d do anything to get out of here.”

That’s the feeling, and it begins to infect some of the songs around it—it’s too soon to know how far the feeling will go and how long it will last. It’s the same for the singer. Orton could end up playing New Age rest homes, or she could leave her listeners behind, desperate to catch up.

Interview, August 2002

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