Happy 20th Anniversary to Everything But the Girl’s Walking Wounded, originally released May 21, 1996.
“Some fourteen years after our first release together, 1996 was our biggest year ever both critically and commercially,” Tracey Thorn recalls in her wonderful 2013 memoir Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Popstar. Indeed, fifteen years after the then aspiring English singer-songwriter met fellow Cherry Red Records artist and husband-to-be Ben Watt at the University of Hull, their group Everything But the Girl finally tasted the widespread global success they so rightfully deserved.
Though critical darlings for two decades on the strength of their early-career solo albums—Thorn’s A Distant Shore (1982) and Watt’s North Marine Drive (1983)—and string of seven albums as a duo beginning with 1984’s Eden through 1992’s Acoustic, it was their 1994 album Amplified Heart that initiated the transformation of their career.
More precisely, though Amplified Heart is a stellar affair all around, one remixed single from the LP proved game-changing for the group. When the original album version of “Missing” was released in August 1994, it made only minor ripples across the airwaves and within the record shops.
Fast forward fourteen months to October 1995, and the revered house DJ/producer Todd Terry reinvigorated the single by layering in more dancefloor-friendly beats, and the single quickly became a massive worldwide hit, one of the most universally beloved dance anthems of all time. After experiencing a career lull in the early ‘90s, Thorn and Watt were suddenly propelled to newfound heights of global popularity and commercial acclaim that at long last rivaled the critical recognition they’d garnered to date.
Coupled with the unanticipated success of the “Missing” remix, Thorn’s stunning vocals on Massive Attack’s “Protection” single a handful of months prior, and Watt’s continued exploration of the London drum and bass circuit, Everything But the Girl’s sound was destined to evolve from their more acoustic and jazz-indebted blueprint.
Upon its release in May 1996, Walking Wounded, the pair’s ninth studio effort, represented the most fully realized manifestation of their career rebirth to date. Though the group’s sonic adventurism also posed creative and professional risks. “This next step in our musical career was exciting,” Thorn declares in Bedsit Disco Queen. “There were no certainties involved in any of it, no sense of treading familiar ground; rather, a strong feeling of heading out into unchartered waters. Just before Walking Wounded came out, I remember thinking that it could go either way. We might triumph or we might fall flat on our faces. We worried that we would annoy some of the drum-and-bass underground by making a pop version of a sound that was still so new, but in the end even that never really happened.”
Masterfully produced by Watt, Walking Wounded marks the formal expansion of Everything But the Girl’s musical palette, through the adoption of more electronic, drum and bass, and house flavored soundscapes. Yet despite this new direction, the group’s arrangements are still comingled with their signature emotive songwriting & dazzling melodies. Thorn’s reassuring vocals and contemplative lyrics about the vicissitudes of life and love are perfect complements to Watt’s lush, beat-driven soundscapes.
“Tracey's voice is very much a unique signature sound, Watt explained in a 2012 interview with The Quietus. “I think the mood and the sense of harmony on all our records is not very different, and you sort of feel comfortable. Even if on paper, the instrumentation looks different. What with drum & bass and drum machines, acoustic guitars and congas…you know, on paper it looks ‘wrong.’ People think it's a betrayal of authenticity if you do something different.” Regardless of how their most rigidly devoted followers may have received Walking Wounded’s nuanced and experimental structure, it’s damn near impossible for anyone to deny just how enchanting of an album it truly is.
Opening the album with a riveting rush of melodic drum and bass, “Before Today” is not your prototypical love song. And this is a good thing. A very good thing. When Thorn seductively demands “I want your love / And I want it now,” the immediacy of love and her determination to have it could not be more palpable.
Released as the second single, the shimmering stunner “Wrong” examines the “little give and take” that defines love founded upon reciprocity. More than any track on Walking Wounded, “Wrong” is most reminiscent of “Missing” and augurs the house-blessed stompers that would feature on the group’s follow-up and final album Temperamental (1999). Like its precursor, “Wrong” gets the Todd Terry remix treatment here as well, though while the beats are more pronounced, Terry’s redeux is admittedly not much of an eye-opening expansion upon the original.
An introspective post-breakup lament that finds Thorn coyly confessing, “I could have loved you forever / Or I could have left you forever,” the title track and lead single begins in atmospheric, subdued fashion before gloriously morphing into hypnotic drum and bass patterns. Unlike the “Wrong” remix, Omni Trio’s reimagined version that closes the album incorporates a bevy of sinister synths and ultimately represents more of an intriguing departure from the original.
Other highlights include “Single,” a downtempo examination of independence, ambivalence and regret in the wake of a relationship gone awry, with drum claps and horn flourishes that evoke the group’s early career compositions. The plaintive “Big Deal,” an unsympathetic assessment of another’s indecision, and the propulsive “Flipside,” which explores self-awareness and reconciling one’s present identity with her past persona, are also standouts.
The album’s finest moment, at least to my ears, is the confessional, guitar-driven “Mirrorball.” Emblematic of Thorn’s penchant for unabashed self-reflection and candor, the song finds her reevaluating a pair of past relationships—one romantic, the other platonic—and the heartache that ensued in their wakes, as she attempts to move on with her life unencumbered. Seldom has exorcising past demons and despair sounded so comforting, with Thorn suggesting to simply “Let it all go” in the song’s closing moments.
A shining example of an album that exquisitely merges the cerebral, emotional and physical, Walking Wounded is the culmination of Thorn and Watt’s unparalleled devotion to songcraft and fearlessness in taking the bravest of chances with their music. Virtues that have continued to characterize their respective post-EBTG solo careers. Twenty years on, Walking Wounded still sounds as sublime as ever.