The defining sound of Beth Orton‘s music has nothing to do with genre. The British singer/songwriter has never really been beholden to a specific scene or musical space, her music weaving in and out of big beat electronica and buzzing psychedelia, baroque English folk rock and warmly atmospheric downtempo. Prior to the release of her 1996 debut Trailer Park, Orton collaborated with The Chemical Brothers, and has since found herself in good company, her other collaborators including William Orbit and Fuck Buttons’ Andrew Hung, who lent some sonic treatments and textures to her 2016 album Kidsticks. But Orton’s signature sound is simply that of her own voice, a versatile instrument that conveys both comforting warmth and vast emotional depths alike, seasoned and carrying a certain gravitas ever since the moment most of us heard her sing—a sort of world-weariness and wisdom earned from an atypical and adventurous life, which has included, among other things, spending three months in Thailand living as a nun at age 19 after the death of her mother.
It’s Orton’s own voice, literally and figuratively, that drives her seventh album, Weather Alive, her first for Partisan Records as well as the end of a six-year gap between records. The first album where she’s credited as lead producer, Weather Alive stitches together the disparate yet complementary creative impulses that have driven her career thus far, yet given new avenues through which to explore and run wild, with some additional instrumental flourishes provided by collaborating musicians such as Alabaster dePlume, The Smile/Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner, and The Invisible’s Tom Herbert. 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 the eight songs on Weather Alive through simple, skeletal means, crafting melodies on a cheap piano along with her own vocals. That ultimately became the launching point for a brilliant array of immersive arrangements and stylistic explorations, the likes of which make great use of her enlisted ensemble of musicians. But where instrumentalists such as dePlume and Skinner ostensibly play within the somewhat loose terrain of jazz, the album isn’t so strictly defined. From its opening title track, Weather Alive evokes the late records of Talk Talk in its boundless sprawl and enchanting possibilities, with Orton describing a kind of spiritual experience in accepting something beyond her control: “Slipping from my hands/Falling from my grasp/More than I can stand/Coming alive.” This isn’t jazz, but its dissolution and convergence feel like the result of a kind of chemical reaction yielded from less strictly defined structures, Orton’s vocal performance—at times soaring and mellifluous, in others a whispery rasp—occasionally taking on an improvised quality itself.
More than anything, Weather Alive is defined by its freedom, the joy and vibrancy of these songs stemming from how limitless they feel. The groove on “Fractals” feels eternal amid Orton’s bittersweet address of the moment “you stop believing in magic,” against Skinner’s skittering beats and dePlume’s sweet breaths of saxophone. She crafts a breathtaking ambient blues in “Haunted Satellite,” the reverberations between notes becoming the driving force behind the song as much as a proper melody, while there’s a trade-off between minor-key drift and understated funk on “Forever Young,” mirroring Orton’s lyrical give-and-take between comfort and dread, singing, “Come back, my love, and see/Come and see what a mess/They made of this.” And while the bassline and chord progression seldom changes in the breathtaking “Arms Around a Memory,” its haunting, gradual evolution amounts to a climactic moment that will induce chills.
Weather Alive adheres to a particular trend in Orton’s body of work in that it adheres to no trend at all, other than the one that finds her taking even greater artistic risks every time she makes a new studio visit. That consistent instinct to seek out a new creative spark, to allow nothing beyond her own songwriting to define her, is what has led to a new peak almost 30 years into her career. It speaks volumes that her best album is the one in which she takes the helm as producer—a reaffirmation that the most valuable voice worth listening to is her own.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.