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TERRY GROSS, host:

Tracey Thorn is best known as half of the British duo Everything But the Girl, with her husband Ben Watt. Everything But the Girl hasn't put out a new album since 1999 and Thorn has spent her time primarily raising her three children with Watt. But now she's released "Love and Its Opposite," which is her third solo album.

Here's rock critic Ken Tucker's review.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. TRACEY THORN (Musician): (Singing) Late in the afternoon, October. Lights will be coming on soon...

KEN TUCKER: Middle-age pop has been a mainstay of music for a long time now. The Who's old yell of "hope I die before I get old" has become an irritating cliche whenever it's removed from the context of its song. Still, songs that actually grapple well with maturity, both as subject matter and as craft, remain rare. That's the first, most obvious reason Tracy Thorn's "Love and Its Opposite" is such an invigorating tonic.

(Soundbite of song "Long White Dress")

Ms. THORN: (Singing) Matthew was a wised-up kid. Found out everything before the rest of us did. He said I don't think that you have to be married. And I don't know why I felt so scared. I just knew I didn't want to wear a long white dress, long white dress.

TUCKER: In that song, "Long White Dress," the narrator recalls apprehensiveness about getting married. She looks back on herself as a romantic kid whose fears were about the unknowable: what it's like to commit to someone, how you work out the daily mechanics of a relationship once that long white dress has been put in mothballs. Flash to years later, when the married woman looks around her and sees a dreadful sight that hadn't crossed her mind when she was young: divorce, and its own set of fears and impossible problems.

(Soundbite of song "Oh, the Divorces")

Ms. THORN: (Singing) Who's next? Who's next? Always the ones that you least expect. They seem so strong. It turned out she wanted more all along. And each time I hear who's to part, I examine my heart, see how it stands.

TUCKER: The beauty of Tracey Thorn's alto is enhanced by whatever experience she brings in her mid-40s, a wife and mother, to continue the kind of romantic ballads she and her partner in everything, Ben Watt, have constructed here. Sometimes, the arrangements are as simple as allowing Thorn to accompany herself with a few stark piano chords, on the song I just played, "Oh, the Divorces." Actually, it's less a song than a small novel, some cross between Fay Weldon and John Updike.

Elsewhere, Thorn insists upon a lighter touch, as in this dialogue between a mother and her teenage offspring, passing each other biologically on "Hormones."

(Soundbite of song "Hormones")

Ms. THORN: (Singing) Yours are just kicking in. Mine are just checking out. You're at the beginning of this tunnel, and I'm just coming out. Either way, these days we're not as in control as we think. You're stamping up the stairs. I'm crying at the kitchen sink.

TUCKER: The music on "Love and Its Opposite" is a subtle shift in the sound Thorn and Watt developed earlier in their careers. The cool jazz and frequent Latin rhythms of the Everything but the Girl albums have been scaled back and localized. This is very much a British pop album soaked in American singer-songwriter emotions. There's a bit of Christine McVie in Thorn's voice, and blue-period Joni Mitchell in the keyboards. This musical strategy allows her freedom to tell meticulously detailed stories such as "Singles Bar," whose main character slips off her wedding ring and wonders if you can tell her age by the size of her jeans as she orders a drink.

(Soundbite of song "Singles Bar")

Ms. THORN: (Singing) Is there room for one more at the singles bar? I've been working up the courage all year. I pull off my ring as I push my way in. Won't be needing it here. Can you guess my age in this light? Who will be taking me home tonight? So pour me one more...

TUCKER: Throughout "Love and Its Opposite," Thorn sounds both comfy and unsettled. On her Facebook page, Thorn identifies herself as a, quote, "singer, gardener and bedsit disco queen." That kind of mocking wryness serves her well, as she navigates the life she's been living, and the challenge of making music as complex as that life.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Tracey Thorn's new album "Love and Its Opposite." You can listen to three songs from the album, including "Oh, the Divorces," on our website: freshair.npr.org.

Coming up: Maureen Corrigan reviews Jane Smiley's new novel "Private Life."

This is FRESH AIR.

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