BETH ORTON: DAYBREAKER (2002)
1) Paris Train; 2) Concrete Sky; 3) Mount Washington; 4) Anywhere; 5) Daybreaker; 6) Carmella; 7) God Song; 8) This One's Gonna Bruise; 9) Ted's Waltz; 10) Thinking About Tomorrow.
Oh, Daybreaker. Well, you know, I'd never in the world claim that it kicks as much prime time ass as The Razor's Edge, but still, I feel it is a little underrated over these years. The murderous riffage on ʽHail Caesarʼ, the maniacal apocalyptic feel of ʽBurnin' Aliveʼ, the triumphant anthemic ascent of the wannabe-alltime-American classic ʽHard As A Rockʼ... oh wait a minute, that was Ballbreaker, seems like we're in the wrong sort of story here.
Well, anyway, Ballbreaker was no timeless classic and Daybreaker is no awful embarrassment, but still, intelligence and depth aside, I know which of the two I would choose. (I almost wanted to write "artistic symbolism aside", but then realized that AC/DC music is really full of artistic symbolism to a degree that Beth Orton could only hope for. It's not very decent artistic symbolism, of course, but whoever said art has to be polite?). The thing is, on Daybreaker Beth sets aside such values as (a) musical innovation, (b) sonic energy, and (c) melodic hooks, and goes all the way in the «singer-songwriter with atmosphere and attitude» department. In other words, she takes herself more seriously than ever before, and you have to take it or leave it.
One good listen to ʽParis Trainʼ, the album opener, will probably be enough for you to know whether to bother with the rest, because most of the album sounds in a similar manner. Slow-moving, moody, melodically predictable folk-pop with «proverbially deep» lyrics that hint at never-healing personal traumas. There is even some dynamics, as the orchestral layers gradually creep up on you like gathering clouds, bursting out in a thunderstorm midway through. There is even some class to it, and nothing specifically irritating about the whole thing. But it is all so bland, so limp, so middle-of-the-road in everything, that eventually I'd almost prefer to be irritated than to have to be wasting time searching for a single dent in this impeccable smoothness.
Song after song, we get these densely arranged, multi-layered soundscapes — I think she might have set out to rival The Cure in their famous bid for membership in Monty Python's «Royal Society For Putting Things On Top Of Other Things» — that are all so dense and stately and noble and epic and... nothing. ʽMount Washingtonʼ, true to its name, spends six and a half minutes climbing up, and up, and up, and six and a half minutes later, we're still climbing and we still do not know where or why, we just do it. I'd like to love this song, but for some reason, it does not work at all. One possible thought is that it is fairly hard to be humble and bombastic at the same time — Pete Townshend could somehow manage that, but Beth Orton does not have comparable talent, and so a song like ʽMount Washingtonʼ is way too loud and over-the-top to be truly humble, yet not loud or intense or emotional enough to be truly bombastic. Like everything else on here, it gets stuck in between — and fades out of memory as soon as it is over.
It might have been better if she'd just drop it and made the entire album into a solo acoustic performance: I think that the most quiet songs here, like ʽThis One's Gonna Bruiseʼ with its lonesome cello backup (co-written with Ryan Adams), and the fussy country-pop of ʽCarmellaʼ, are the easiest ones to take with you on a reminiscence trip. Instead, they are brief interludes, as the lady sets out to convince us that she can mesmerize audiences without much use of the electronic devices, but I am not sure about that. The songs all deal with her personal tragedies, traumas, treasons, and tribulations, yet they do not convey a sense of too much suffering — in fact, sometimes the conveyed feeling borders on exaggerated self-pitying, which is probably the worst thing we'd expect from an «authentic» singer-songwriter.
For the sake of extra trivia, ʽConcrete Skyʼ is co-written with Johnny Marr, and, perhaps not coincidentally, it is the most upbeat and even catchy folk-pop song on here, so you might wanna check it out if you happen to collect everything Smiths-related. But it is certainly not enough to rescue the album from a disappointed thumbs down — a classic case of «biting off more than one can chew», as far as my opinion is concerned. Naturally, as far as singer-songwriters go, this is still a million times better than, say, a phenomenon like Vanessa Carlton (whose debut album came out that same year, as I still remember with a shudder), but what we have here is a real singer-songwriter that has charisma, intelligence, and talent to burn, and it makes the lifelessness of Daybreaker all the more lamentable.