BETH ORTON: CENTRAL RESERVATION (1999)
1) Stolen Car; 2) Sweetest Decline; 3) Couldn't Cause Me Harm; 4) So Much More; 5) Pass In Time; 6) Central Reservation; 7) Stars All Seem To Weep; 8) Love Like Laughter; 9) Blood Red River; 10) Devil Song; 11) Feel To Believe; 12) Central Reservation (the Then Again version).
This is probably Beth's critical, if not commercial, peak, as the album mostly got rave reviews and ended up on several popular best-of lists. But this seems more a matter of conjecture and opportunity than anything else — Beth was in good form, but she'd also worked on her public appeal and musical world connections, and by the time the record came out, there was an intellectual fanbase that was ready to sit up and take note. Well, I guess you just have to get some compensation for touring with Lilith Fair, after all.
The album as a whole is typical «mature» Beth Orton: boring as heck the first few times you listen to it, and then, depending on your Zodiac sign or diet peculiarities, it either just goes on being boring, or it «sinks in» and you begin to appreciate the subtle magic of the vocals or the intricate, if inobtrusive, details of the arrangements. You can also begin to appreciate the artistic personality of Beth Orton, but this may be the hardest task of all — she is quite elusive, and her joys and sorrows may pretend to more depth than they actually have (which, when proven, is the worst possible crime of all, but the jury is divided on that one).
If you feel like you'd want to enjoy this album, but can't imagine how, here's two possible lines of advice. First, this is one Beth Orton record where she managed to put together quite a few notorious guest stars, and every once in a while, they help out in spicing up her songwriting craft. On ʽStolen Carʼ, the lead-in track and first single off the album, Ben Harper contributes an eerie lead guitar part with something like a backward echo effect — it fulfills more or less the same function as the strings on ʽShe Cries Your Nameʼ, which opened Trailer Park, turning a regular singer-songwriting effort into an «art song». Then, on the lengthy soft waltz ʽSweetest Declineʼ, which is nothing much to write home about by itself, Dr. John sits in on piano and gives it some of his nonchalantly brilliant New Orleanian atmosphere. Then there's quite a badass bass line on the trip-hoppy groove of ʽCouldn't Cause Me Harmʼ — maybe not much else of autonomous interest, but the coolness of the bassline rubs off a little on the guitars, strings, and chimes, making it all sound a little classy. And so on, and on: most of the songs have these «little things» that will stand out in time, provided time is given.
Second, this time, some of the songs that are built strictly around Beth and her acoustic guitar are actually quite good — me referring in particular to ʽBlood Red Riverʼ and ʽDevil Songʼ, whose bleakness, depression, and pathos (and preachiness, in case of the former) I do not find in the least irritating, because the former has a cunningly catchy verse melody and the latter, an equally cunningly catchy chorus melody. Atmosphere-wise, they are both sung from the point of view of some present-day Mary Magdalene, and this makes you feel uneasy — I mean, God only knows what that woman is wishing to confess by saying "Devil was my angel, now I'm just not sure / To travel as my angel there's always my whore". But I can buy it, musically and lyrically, and I can believe she's got some demons of her own to exorcise, so whatever.
Some of this stuff never clicks with me, like the lengthy centerpiece ʽPass In Timeʼ, allegedly written in memory of her late mother — not particularly clichéd, and certainly not overblown, but too musically close to generic «alt-country», and perhaps in need of a more nuanced singing voice to make an impression (and definitely without any need to arrange it as a duet with Terry Callier, whose voice adds nothing but extra blandness to the song); or the title track, which has no melodic backbone whatsoever and consists of a New Age-y mish-mash of keyboards, guitars, and strings without any progressive development or discernible hook (a typical Enya song would feel like a Beatles single next to this).
But on the whole, the record is hardly any worse than Trailer Park, and although it certainly has no business being on the list of 1001 Albums To Hear Before You Die, as Wikipedia informs me in one of its «stay objective» mood swings, there is no reason to deprive it of a thumbs up, either. Essentially, what Beth Orton has managed to do here is take a proverbially uninteresting protagonist — and use a combination of mediocre songwriting skills, inventive producers, and sympathetic guest stars to breathe some new life into her, and I appreciate that. What I don't appreciate is that the album's last song, ʽFeel To Believeʼ expropriates the basic hook of Paul McCartney's ʽFor No Oneʼ to build a thoroughly inferior song on top of it — "hey, that's no way to say goodbye", as Leonard Cohen would have said. But then again, she might just be an innocent victim of the «great Beatles curse» as we know it.