In spite of her absences, it has never felt as though Beth Orton had entirely slipped pop’s mind, consigned among the cracked jewel cases of the forgotten and the forgettable. Briefly at the high end of being magazine fashionable in the mid-1990s when her debut LP Trailer Park sat comfortably with the downbeat, post-club melancholia of Portishead and Lamb, there was, even then, an undercurrent of timelessness in her songs, and, most of all, in her voice.
Now she has broken a six-year silence with the self-produced Weather Alive, composed on a piano that has seen better days, salvaged from a stall on Camden Market. A frequent collaborator, especially across her first two albums, she’s shorn herself of co-authors on this occasion, in doing so producing a set of songs that cleave closest to herself.
As an admittedly unlikely sometime attendee of the Anna Scher Theatre School, Orton avers that “I never went to college”, but she could hardly have hoped for a venue better suited to the atmosphere of the new set and the company she’s put together to perform them than tonight’s. For all its lecture theatre seating, Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music affords a sort of spacious intimacy, a spare warmth, and a stage space visually evocative of the Later… studio. Before its doors are closed for the performance, the audience, showing their age, fidget with the fussy apprehension of parents’ evening.
Their anticipation is rewarded as Orton ambles on, rangily resplendent in a red boiler suit oddly reminiscent of that once worn by staff in the British Rail fast food franchise, Casey Jones. Folding herself into the space behind her fairy light bedecked keyboard, she murmurs to us that “I spilled my tea”, before losing herself in the new LP’s title track. Weather Alive encapsulates the strengths of her recent work, making the most of the sense of reaching for something beyond itself that lies at the heart of her vocals, while adding further emphasis to this in its arrangement, using the spaces that jazz leaves empty to suggest the smallness of the human scale set against the enormity of nature. Like the latter-day Nick Cave, Orton seems to be striving for a connection with the miraculous pain of being here, and finding consolation in its moments of beauty and respite.
Washing out like the tide, it ebbs into a song that hymns smaller scale, shorter-lived hopes – the valiantly bruised Friday Night. Ben Sloan’s drums carry the reversals of the working week into the frontline of the weekend with their martial rhythm, while Orton’s phrasing is battle-scarred but defiant. Underpinned by chords of almost Springsteen-esque size, it succeeds in being rousing without sacrificing its empathy to broader strokes.
She emerges from behind her keyboard to fasten on a guitar and stride to the microphone for the more familiar fare from albums ago. For all its then-modish trappings, She Cries Your Name, which collapses good-humouredly in an instant of missed communication with the band, sticks closer to the template of pop. Both it and Central Reservation feel like A-roads to more popular resorts, where Orton’s current instincts seem to lead her away from the candy floss and bright lights, down the byways and into the backwaters.
When the instrument in question is so distinctive, it feels glib to observe that Orton has at last found her voice. Perhaps it’s more accurate to wonder if it’s that very quality of restless searching that, over the years, has simultaneously informed its affecting quality of unresolved yearning and allowed it to resonate clearly across her periods of absence. In that sense at least, long may she continue to pine.
Main image by Eliot Lee Hazel courtesy of Sonic PR