No album has surprised me like Weather Alive by Beth Orton in 2022. Coming almost thirty years into a career in which Beth Orton, despite being recognised as one the most enduringly captivating songwriters in the UK, has not always received the massive plaudits she deserves, this album might have been expected to be a repetition of what has come before, an artist who knows her audience and might no longer expect to bring in new fans resting on her laurels and putting out something good but unadventurous. That is not what she’s done. In fact, on album eight, she has gone ahead and created her most daring and inventive album to date – mixing her normal folk and electronic influences with elements of jazz, picking from the sounds of some of the best artists of the last twenty years, but making something totally unique from the remnants. In Weather Alive, she has created an album that could only be Beth Orton – but also one that uses her soundscape more effectively than ever before.
Opening with the beautiful, sprawling title song could be considered a brave move when you consider its seven-minute run time – but it sets out the stall of the album perfectly, Beth sounding the best she has have ever sounded on the gorgeous chorus as a tinkling piano guides us forward. The song segues almost unnoticeably into the equally stunning ‘Friday Night’ – this time with the jazz percussion working as the centrepiece as everything else unfolds around it. But it’s with the outstanding ‘Fractals’ that Weather Alive really bursts into its most invigorating stage – as the double bass, piano, and percussion combine perfectly underneath Beth’s skittery, Fetch The Bolt Cutters-esque vocal turn with her repeated refrain of ‘you start believing in magic.’ Put simply, on a purely basic level, it is one of the most exciting listens of the year.
‘Haunted Satellite’ keeps this euphoric feeling going. Like so much of Beth’s music, it flirts with a trip-hop sound but holds its folky vocals and storytelling close to the centre. But it has layers that lots of her earlier work didn’t always have, like she has found another gear again – it’s amazing how this new, intricate instrumentation adds to her sound. How an already dynamic artist seems to have found new levels of dynamism. ‘Forever Young’ is a haunting, piano-led ballad with echoes of Radiohead in its progression. ‘Lonely’ switches things up again, adding a key bit of saxophone, Beth’s vocal always intriguingly just off the beat. ‘Arms Around a Memory’ again scales the highest heights of the album, and of this artist’s career – fascinating lyrics, an irresistible build, and a spellbinding performance by the main artist.
And then with ‘Unwritten’ – a sweeping ballad to match the album opener – we are lulled towards an ending that seems to come too soon but also at the perfect time. Beth has created an eight-song album that ebbs and flows, pulls you in and grabs you and then lets you float and take a breather – it’s an absolute work of art, perfectly crafted. In some ways, the songs feel like they have been obsessed over for every moment of the six-year gap between the last album and this one – and in others, they feel like first takes, an immensely talented band being happy to put out the jam they just had in the studio. The fact that Beth has created her strongest work at this point in her career is astounding, and I hope that her being such an established name doesn’t mean that this piece of work misses out on the plaudits it deserves. It should be a prizewinner, it should be on everyone’s lists, and you should be listening to it right now. Immediately. Now.
Words by Fran Slater