A strange act of temporal travel occurs for me when hearing the voice of Tracey Thorn. Thanks to exposure at an impressionably young age to two songs which feature her voice, her soft tones still to this day have an overly powerful effect on me. For the most part, this power is melancholic, for it reminds that the home life which surrounded my childhood self when first listening to that voice no longer exists in the way it once did. Whenever versions of ‘Missing’ by Everything But The Girl or ‘Protection’ by Massive Attack come my way, I’m set at a certain distance from the present. Her voice is the sadness of adulthood, of broken relationships, of parental breakups and time juggled between fathers and mothers; all things occurring in my adulthood but which render me a child momentarily.
Yet Thorn’s voice is also comforting, warming, and consolatory. For there’s a universality to it, at least perceived from my own childhood and carried through to adulthood. I consider these songs, coupled with the videos made to promote them, an usually poignant pair that showed my childhood self a strange future. At the time, so I recall, I was looking forward to it. Adults lived in cities and Tracey Thorn’s singing was the city achieving corporeality; as if London or Paris had gained a voice and briefly sung words of calm to the lonely wanderers of their various streets. Worries dissolved into her tones and, for me, still do.
I’m Walking Down Your Street Again
Moving down to south London altered the perception of my own memory. Because of the images I had surrounded myself with, from childhood right through to the middle of my PhD, London was unconsciously the canvas over which much of my memory was sketched upon in spite of living for the most part in the north. Walking around London’s streets is still like delving into childhood memories of fantastical films and television programmes, music videos and the like.
It was in Balham, however, walking one day a little further out to explore the area I was generally living in, where an uncanny moment occurred, almost like a déjà vu. Yet I could not, at least then, quite place it. It was generated from the train station which, even though seen then in an autumn light, was also lodged somewhere in my memory as seen at night, a blurry night in fact littered with glittering streetlights. The feelings that came with this image were warm, so warm in fact that I felt a pang of melancholy as it heightened a sense of loss; of that childhood home, only then on that autumn day still recently raw with the break-up of my parents a few years earlier. Even considering I was an adult, and with the privilege of the warmth they provided for an incredibly long time, the fallout still reduced me back to the state of a child.
My father had always had a leaning to various forms of dance music, as well as metal and other more idiosyncratic genres. Much to the dismay of a youth club worker, when asked to recite any lyric to a song I knew, the first lyrics I had ever memorised were of the Megadeth single, ‘99 Ways To Die’. The forlorn look of the worker as my six-year-old self recited, “Not ready to see you yet, 99 ways to die,” is still carved deeply into my memory.
I was sat one day in front of the television, probably paying little attention to what was on at first – engrossed in miniature worlds of Mighty Max and Micro Machines – when a song came on that enraptured me. It was the Todd Terry remix of ‘Missing’ by Everything But The Girl, later to be bought and played by my father in the car, my mother sat happily in the passenger seat. I recall being transfixed by both the song and video, as if some portent of the future had briefly slipped back from a distant time beyond. Thorn’s voice was unhappy but also distinctly feminine; it was equally an awakening awareness of women as much as the awakening of a child looking into an adult future. How alluring and confusing even then it all seemed.
It was the first time that adulthood had been presented to me and understood, linked explicitly with urban living. Adults lived in cities, were sad about their relationships and were allowed to walk around the streets at night. It all seemed so exotic, especially from the comfort of the warm family home, helped by being seen through a glowing prism of total and complete naivety. Thorn’s voice almost made me excited to be an adult and to have to live through all of these things. It was a different type of adulthood to that of my parents though we briefly lapsed into it via weekly trips over to the nearest city which was Liverpool. Cities, and London in particular, were mapped as being the trajectory or goal, and the song still fills me with a sense of excitement. Perhaps it is this excitement, now approaching the age of thirty, that I’m equally nostalgic for.
It was this connection that was made when walking through Balham for the first time, as if bumping into someone long known but now half forgotten. The station is one of the first images seen in the remix video for ‘Missing’ (though the last image seen in the original version), and even on that day in Balham, it felt as if words for the track’s information could flare up in my eye-line, just like when broadcast on its release. The streets of the video are shot at night, only interiors are at daytime. The director, Mark Szaszy, films the streets around Clapham and Balham, sometimes simply from a car, sometimes tracking Thorn walking down the middle of its streets or past bus stops and takeaways. It is an empty city, wandered alone. Looking back on the video, it’s refreshing to see how grungy London looks pre-gentrification, what the places, now today’s tidy air-spaces, used to look like. I still daydream about walking around that particular London. But the attraction towards the aesthetic of the 1990s is really an inner need for a parental home, an aspect more explicitly explored in the other artefact of nostalgia in question, ‘Protection’.
Could You Forgive Yourself
A short time later, Thorn’s voice would reappear like a reaffirming echo in Massive Attack’s ‘Protection’, taken as a single at the beginning of 1995 from the 1994 album of the same name. Though released earlier than the remix of ‘Missing’, it will always be a second chapter as it found its way to me later. Again, the music was not in some solitary aural plane but accompanied by a video, this time directed by Michael Gondry (who would also film a music video in Balham later in the form of ‘Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground’ by The White Stripes). Such relationships explicitly connected music and visuals, mimicking synaesthesia in hindsight. Gondry’s video arguably gained just as much press as the song with its remarkable single-take dream through multiple angles and perspectives of a rainy, Georges Perec-esque Paris tower-block. It’s still baffling today as to how the effect was achieved.
The urban is again the quiet backdrop of Thorn’s voice. Unlike the previous video, parenthood is explicitly present, embedded through the context of a parental breakup. The melancholic lyrics are perfectly realised in the video, showcasing the lonely lives of the multitude of people living in the block. Doors have multiple locks barring them and couples are merely fleeting, there to drop off the children of broken relationships. Gondry’s eye is a child’s eye, the building rendered with childish detail such as toys and cardboard cities outside. The video’s real narrative concerns a child being dropped between parents and certainly colours the interpretation of the lyrics. It was only on recently watching the video again that this framing became clear, bookended by the sadness of a parent leaving their child and walking alone back into the winter night of the city. Daddy G of the band, appropriately named in this case, opens the video, taking a child, presumably meant to be his, back to a flat. He’s holding toys bought in bulk, a subtle symbol suggesting that gifts are bought with a sadly binging quality. He takes the lift with her; a visual that has a brutal but quiet denouement when he later returns down alone.
Even the final shot of the child’s seat in the back of the car, empty as the windscreen-wipers start up, confirms this reading. I think of my own safety seat from childhood, that grey, fuzzy thing, and how much that visual feels a part of my own past and not simply an experimental promotion for a piece of 1990s trip-hop. Thorn’s voice is threaded through all of this; that gentle tone that almost acts as a comfort yet also raises the stark defence put up by the lyrics. I sometimes want to go back into this world, even naively so. Why didn’t my Micro Machines move on their own like Arthur Vowels’ did?
The adulthood of cities and split families was far off when first viewing, alien and stored solely in the pixels of the television. It was a privilege that, by today’s standards, that distance was maintained for so long, the loving family home drawn out until it inevitably broke apart in my twenties, when identity and emotion was thankfully slightly more stable. I was lucky to have that sense of home for so long. Yet when it happened, in spite of being an adult, I was reduced to craving Thorn’s voice again. I was watching on, hoping the tracking shot out of our house – stuck there by financial necessity whilst starting a Masters degree – would just end.
And I Miss You
What do I miss really when I hear Tracey Thorn’s voice on those two songs? A lack of responsibility perhaps? The perception of the world as an endlessly large place, filled with rain and buildings and people losing each other but perhaps potentially also finding each other once again? As soon as either ‘Missing’ or ‘Protection’ find their way to me, I have to stop, reflect and maybe travel within. Thorn’s voice allows me to go back; a dangerous action perhaps due to seeing the world not really as it was. But on the other hand, I use it in moments of instability, a sense of grounding from a time where everything seemed stable; always fixed and secure like all events of the past inevitably are, for better or for worse.
I revisited Balham again recently, armed with my own nostalgia machine; a Polaroid camera borrowed from the photographer and friend, Ellen Rogers. The camera captures places within a typically analogue amber even when they are vibrantly and aesthetically of the now. I walked to the train station, as seen in the video from Balham High Road. Appropriately the architecture hasn’t changed in the slightest bar the excess of new brands all around. If visited at night, it wouldn’t be too surprising to see Thorn herself; such is its visual stasis, like a ghost wandering back to me from the past. I snapped a Polaroid, the colours flattening the garish colours of the modern day momentarily back into the grungier tense from the video.
Thorn’s voice in those songs is my childhood regained; a Madeleine moment of the 1990s much like the French delicacy was for Marcel Proust when writing In Search Of Lost Time. It lets memories gush forth, dammed for so many years by the banalities of everyday survival as an adult in an impossibly expensive era of urban living. On that Balham road, there was a realisation that her voice was not simply a stunning musical entity but a gateway to a past world for me that was once home, like a nostalgic womb; where the modern day recedes some way over the horizon, just for a few wonderful minutes. It is always more than I can ever ask for as I am the adult now. But I still miss you.