Tracey Thorn is by no means the only musician drawing inspiration from the shit-show circus that is modern politics, but she is one of the best. As we enter a new age of dystopia, more and more artists are turning to music that reflects their personal anguish, alienation and anger at the state of our society. Sometimes, these feelings translate into tracks that berate and badger, with artists using their listeners as punching bags, hectoring them with truisms and moral lessons. But a successful song doesn’t have to resort to such messy tactics, instead capturing the public mood without even trying.
On her new album, the excellent Record, Tracey Thorn covers a typically wide breadth of topics from sexism to social media malaise. But at the centre of the album sits one of Thorn’s most quietly political tracks to date. When Thorn chatted to radio host Kyle Meredith last month about her then upcoming record, she said she was motivated by “getting depressed about world events and politics”. Listening to the record in full, there’s little doubt the track that absorbed the bulk of her fears and anxieties was ‘Smoke’, a song that simmers with a very modern unease.
On ‘Smoke’, Thorn condenses decades of British history into verses that intertwine a national narrative with a personal one, detailing the journey of her ancestors from “the wide flat fields to the rolling smoke”. The smoke in question is of course London, where Thorn’s mother finds herself in the midst of the blitz, emerging unscathed, unlike an acquaintance who was “blown to bits.” It’s a history that’s familiar from the textbooks, but also one that’s imbued with more than a touch of the personal, Thorn’s lyrics blending the public and the private into one interwoven narrative.
It’s appropriate, given that ideas of Britishness are born just as much from rose-tinted history lessons as they are from family anecdotes. Thorn keeps her family’s history sparse and relatable, rooting it in tragi-romantic images of the blitz and smog. The result is a collage of anecdotes and imagery that feels instantly familiar, Thorn summoning not just the image of Britain, but the feeling of it. As she points out, however, it’s a feeling that’s changed over the last year or so.
After the result of the Brexit vote (and perhaps even before), people who naively believed Britain was a country of tolerance and kindness were forced to face an uncomfortable truth. Surely Thorn is not the only person to look at London with new eyes in recent years, nor the only person to believe it was a city who accepted everyone regardless of their colour or creed. Confronted with a bitter reality, Thorn is left dejected and questioning. This is summed up perfectly in the refrain, in which she dolefully sings: “London you’re in my blood and you’ve been there for so long / London you’re in my blood but I feel you going wrong.”
So why does ‘Smoke’ succeed where other tracks have failed? The success of ‘Smoke’ lies in its emphasis on feeling, tapping into an often unspoken sensation of shame, disappointment and dread. It refuses to get bogged down in moralising, instead lamenting a country that is morphing into something new, something unpleasant and mean, utilising evocative imagery, anxious electronic beats and yearning piano to great effect. It’s a subtle approach, but one that pays off. What ‘Smoke’ manages to encapsulate is the sinking feeling felt by thousands of like-minded people all over the country, watching the rise of the far-right and spike in hate crime. It’s a song for rational-thinking Brits who, until recently, felt like Britain was their home. It’s an elegy for a country that feels increasingly isolated and hellbent on isolating itself further, on building walls and pandering to zealots. On ‘Smoke’, Thorn looks at all of this and shakes her head, despairing at the ugliness before her and praying for a change, anything at all to make it all OK, but surely knowing there’s no miracle on the horizon.