The mistress of folk-pop mystery returns
Every record has a defining moment. This is the one from Beth Orton‘s ‘Daybreaker’. With about a minute of ‘Mount Washington’ to go, Orton starts up a multi-layered. wordless wail as the song drifts into a dream-like coda. Her voice rises through the music like headlamps through a fog.
It is the clearest glance you will get at Britain’s top folk-pop hipster in the course of ‘Daybreaker’. A transfixing sound that comes from somewhere but you’d be pushed to tell exactly where. Enigmatic? You really haven’t heard the half of it.
A career as a singer-songwriter might seem a strange choice for someone who clearly has no great desire to be understood, and if anything, Orton‘s third album is even more withdrawn than the first two – ‘Trailer Park’ and ‘Central Reservation’.
“Sometimes I slip inside imagery,” sings Orton on ‘Paris Train’, and she really isn’t lying. Like the work of Nick Drake, John Martyn and the most inscrutable of all the English folk singers, Anne Briggs, the immaculately chiselled ‘Daybreaker’ is so beautiful and distant that it almost isn’t there at all.
If the spartan ‘This One’s Gonna Bruise’ – written by cappuccino fun bundle Ryan Adams – is the most emotionally affecting piece of ‘Daybreaker’ then perhaps that’s because it’s the one that has the least (and most) of Orton in it. Given someone else’s words, she seems suddenly set free. Just a voice. Just nothing.
By contrast, the only truly drab moment – the Morcheeba-ly ‘Anywhere’ – is the only occasion when you feel that Orton is battling against her natural ability to be elusive. It is something that she really is unnervingly good at after all – for proof look no further than ‘Concrete Sky’, ‘Carmella’ and shaggy-dog country ballad ‘God Song’.
Cynics could say it’s a Dido album for people too self-consciously cool to buy a Dido album, but to do so would be to mistake a black cat for a lump of coal. Aside from the workaday fact that it contains a hatful of luminously beautiful tunes, ‘Daybreaker’ is a record of uncompromising integrity rather than a drab, grey mothership for shit singles.
So who is Beth Orton? What does she think? What does she do on her days off? If you’re looking for answers, ‘Daybreaker’ can only disappoint. In the butcher’s shop window of pop, we are used to grisly close-ups of bleeding hearts. Here, by contrast, is a blurred passport photograph seen from the window of a moving bus. A 51-minute vanishing act. Ignore it at your peril.