With his new recording, Fever Dream, Ben Watt captures the pleasure and pain of a Gen-Xer caught between two fires – his youth and the future.
Ben Watt's Fever Dream is an album filled with snapshots of relationships – from the passion of new romance to the sad realization that a pairing has ended. Watt, half of Everything But the Girl, is known for the textural time capsules he and singer Tracey Thorn, his partner of 35 years, created in the 1980s and 1990s; now, Watt serves as his own mouthpiece for another brilliant collection of solo songs about love won, lost and misplaced.
Fever Dream picks up where Watt’s previous album, 2014’s Hendra, left off – in a mesmerizing, slow-rock blur between the joys and dilemmas of midlife. Mind you, Watt's not the one going through a crisis: a few of the compositions are characterizations and self-portraits; others, he says, are observations of the “fascinating cross-section of people I meet who are keen to tell me their life stories.”
There’s the soulful, lonely trip back to his parents’ empty house in “Bricks and Wood;” a pastoral Halloween curse in “Winter’s Eve;” the drunken line between friendship and love in “Faces of My Friends;” and a troubled affair in “Gradually.”
The relationship inklings on Fever Dream might be rooted in the events of 1996, when Watt and Thorn got a surprise Billboard hit with a Todd Terry house-music remix of “Missing” (from Amplified Heart). The track, which charted around the world, became a bellwether for a decade of the British duo’s successful dabbling in dance music and a second career for Watt as a DJ. It also marked the beginning of a series of life and career transitions for the couple.
“That [time period] was almost a freak moment,” Watt, 53, explains. “When Tracey and I came over [to the US] as a duo, we were playing 200 or 300-person capacity venues, the same kind of places I’m playing now. [Watt’s US tour kicks off June 15 in Washington, DC.] Because ‘Missing’ was so huge, people imagined that Everything But the Girl was a much bigger band than it actually was.”
Having a bona fide hit can raise profiles and open doors for musicians, but in order to move forward as an artist, the real work still requires late hours and emotional surgery to siphon lyrics from the ups and downs of everyday life, Watt says. Not to mention singing solo in front of crowds every night, which is something he hadn’t done in decades until he decided to “stake his claim in a young man’s game” with 60 gigs on three continents to support Hendra.
By the time Watt got around to making that record in 2013 (his first solo album since 1983’s North Marine Drive), he’d survived a close call with Churg-Strauss syndrome, married and raised three kids with Thorn and written two well-received memoirs (Patient, about his struggle and recovery from illness and Romany and Tom, which chronicled the deaths of his parents).
“When your youth is behind you and your old age is somewhere up in front, you have to get yourself off the axis of the present,” Watt says. In other words, writing a relevant album for 2016 shouldn’t preclude personal history, but the music needs a clear path to the future. “You have to find a way to go forward, because the past is full of hang-ups.”
In Fever Dream’s title track, we get a taste of his midlife mood: in the gauzy strumming, slow-burn groove and oscillating synth lines, we understand why Watt wakes at four in the morning to ask, “Where are the days when we floated out of time?” before he and vocal guest M.C. Taylor (from folk act Hiss Golden Messenger) chime in on the chorus: “I feel the shifting of the seasons … yet my days feel out of hand.”
In the opening song, “Gradually,” collaborator Bernard Butler’s guitar tangles itself into the whistling vibrato of Watt’s Roland Juno 106 synthesizer and Rex Horan’s old-school double bass. “Like an autumn fire, a growing intensity, something about your love just got to me gradually,” Watt sings. It's the sexiest arrangement he’s ever written.
“We are all made up of episodic, sporadic memories,” Watt says of the love stories which bridge the younger man inside to the older one he sees in the mirror. “Maybe that’s all we are. We think we remember past relationships, but we actually remember are just moments in past relationships.”
Both in Everything But the Girl and as a solo artist, Watt’s craft of capturing these memories is more clear and effective than that of most songwriters. He writes with both the beginning and end of life’s cycles in mind. “New Year of Grace,” the final song on Fever Dream – a pristinely-plucked guitar ballad featuring a backing vocal by indie singer Marissa Nadler – is a testament to the deftness of his approach:
Years roll by, some fast and some go slow
Versions of us come and go
I see myself, I see a lived-in face
If one that’s in search of grace
A new year of grace
“The song is about how moments of great beauty can arrive unexpectedly and make sense of the rocky points you come across in long-term relationships,” he says. “I like the idea of grace as a secular concept, of a moment of unexpected perfection. If you’ve been through a bad year, then maybe the next year will be a good one.”