Photo Credit: Eliot Lee Hazel
“Almost makes me wanna cry // The weather’s so beautiful outside,” cries Beth Orton on the title track, and lead single, for her newest album, Weather Alive. It’s a sentiment that echoes across the LP’s 45 minutes – how small moments of beauty can evoke such heightened emotional responses. The album itself is also capable of evoking such strength of feeling in listeners. The music of Weather Alive is lilting and often understated but also incredibly textured – courtesy of transcendent piano loops from Orton herself, and assistance elsewhere from Tom Skinner, Shahzad Ismaily, Tom Herbet, and Alabaster dePlume (all of whom are highly acclaimed musicians in their own right).
Across eight tracks, Orton sings of the elements, of isolation, nostalgia, her parents (who both died while she was a teenager), her dreams, and Proust. Tying together all these disparate ideas is an acute sense of wisdom that one only gains through decades of experience on this earth (and that some never gain at all). All are delivered through Orton’s lived-through, creaky croon – which now sounds distinctly different than it did in the days of “Stolen Car” and “Central Reservation.” Admittedly an acquired taste – one would be forgiven for not being able to decipher much of what Orton was saying without first consulting a lyrics page – with repeat listens it becomes one of the album’s biggest selling points; a living, breathing, constantly evolving testament to resilience, self-examination and the power that comes from vulnerability.
Weather Alive arrived, by all accounts, during some of Orton’s lowest financial moments since before her 1990s breakthrough – humbly written (with Orton alone at a second-hand piano purchased from Camden Market), she took out a small bank loan to fund the rest of the album’s creation. Yet Weather Alive never sounds like an album born out of necessity – financial or otherwise -, it unfolds patiently and exists entirely outside of modern music trends. A heady mixture of synths, soft-drum playing (a la Mimi Parker’s as part of the band Low) and repeated piano loops swirl throughout; sometimes leading to jazzy, urgent numbers like “Fractals” or desolate meditative pieces like “Lonely.”
Orton’s combination of lived-through wisdom and belief in the magic of the everyday comes through most strongly on “Arms Around A Memory” – where Orton finds salvation in nostalgia while reckoning with its limitations. Filled with beautiful imagery (Orton’s “contact high” and her lover’s “broken bottle smile”), it finds the singer transported back to being back in a partner’s eighth-floor apartment one night in New York City. Like PJ Harvey’s “You Said Something” before it, the song captures those moments of ecstasy – of fully being in the moment; where the rest of the world fades away and all that matters is the beauty around you. But Orton’s added years of lived experience add new dimensions to the song, as her perspective snaps back to the present day (“And I got to questioning my credibility // Like you’re the reliable witness to what I feel”).
Elsewhere Orton’s songwriting crosses the border between descriptive and surreal – like on the stunning highlight “Friday Night” which begins with “dreaming of Proust” and later tells of forgetting “I had bones,” before being grounded in the final verse via one incisive couplet: “Now the measure of your absence // Is the presence that you leave.” Meanwhile, on “Haunted Satellite” she reckons with how her idiosyncrasies have left her feeling adrift in the music industry (“I have lived as a satellite // I’ve saddled up, I’ve settled up, I don’t feel right”) and on the most grounded song here, “Lonely” gives voice to her long-deceased parents and repeats the titular phrase a devastating 21 times.
Weather Alive ends with “Unwritten” – perhaps the album’s most sparse tune. After Orton delivers her final line, “know that this ain’t getting undone,” her piano playing and Skinner’s drumming see the song out. These two minutes are a testament, yes, to the power of music when words fail, but also offer an opportunity to let the rest of the album fully sink in; allowing one to reflect fully on its immense power and expertise. In the end, you are left with no doubt – this is not music that could ever be “undone”, but instead music whose power is destined to live on.