Beth Orton has been considered a singer-songwriter folkie for so long that it can be hard to remember that her career began quite differently. She got her start singing on William Orbit’s chillout project Strange Cargo, and she lent her voice to two songs on the Chemical Brothers’ Exit Planet Dust, placing her smack in the middle of British pop’s volatile post-rave milieu. When her 1996 breakout album, Trailer Park, appeared, it balanced plaintive acoustic guitars and barroom piano with trip-hop beats and atmospheric electronic detailing. That unusual fusion had a lot to do with producer Andrew Weatherall, whom Orton hired after he wedded acid house to bluesy psych rock on Primal Scream’s Screamadelica. But Trailer Parkended up being an outlier in Orton’s catalog. On subsequent albums she progressively dialed back the electronics, and her last full-length, 2012’s starkly acoustic Sugaring Season, wrapped itself snugly in the warm, homespun mantle of folksingers like Nick Drake and Sandy Denny.
Kidsticks returns to her electronic roots, but not necessarily in ways that anyone might have expected. Written and produced in Los Angeles with Andrew Hung, of the noisy, psychedelic synth-mashers Fuck Buttons, it often sounds little like anything Orton has done before. The record’s sequencing plays up its strangeness, placing its most unexpected songs right up front. “Snow” leads off with caterwauling counterpoints and flanged electric guitars over a trashcan drum corps; “Moon” follows with dance beats and a warbling keyboard melody that’s a dead ringer for a sound from David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes.” Orton, meanwhile, sounds like she’s channeling Johnny Cash, lending to the impression that part of the album’s genesis may have simply been Orton and Hung swapping the aux cord, constructing a virtual mood board of favorite songs as they sketched out Kidsticks‘ idiosyncratic sound. That might how the dubstep-inspired bass throb of “Petals” snuck through, not to mention the peppy new wave pastiche of “1973.” Fortunately, most of these songs are far more than the sum of their influences: “Petals” may start out sounding like Massive Attack, but by its guitar-and-drum-duel finale, it burns like a church on fire.
It helps that Orton and Hung have enlisted a crack group of musicians, including bassist Bram Inscore, jazz drummer Guillermo E. Brown, percussionist Lucky Paul, and George Lewis, Jr. of Twin Shadow on guitar; Grizzly Bear bassist Chris Taylor also turns up on a couple of songs, and the soundtrack composer Dustin O’Halloran contributes string arrangements to a few more. Their contributions are subtle but key. The rolling “Wave” crests atop a deceptively potent rhythm section and surging wah-wah guitar; “Flesh and Blood” gives her pastoral tendencies a loose, jammy makeover and adds lilting, one-finger synth lines. The scope of her collaborators’ resumes—Inscore has played with Beck and Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Brown has a long history with David S. Ware and Matthew Shipp’s groups, while Paul can be found sitting in with Chilly Gonzales and Mocky—says something about Orton and Hung’s approach here: Kidsticks is less a roadmap to a given destination than a net for catching vibes.
As for Orton, loosening up suits her well. You can tell how much she’s enjoying herself by all the ways she experiments with her voice. She takes on three or four different styles in “Snow,” alternately cooing and yelping, playing head voice off chest voice. On “Wave,” her delivery frays around the edges, inseparable from the throat that produced it; every crack, every quaver feels like a proud badge of her years on the planet. She’s just as physical on “Flesh and Blood,” but here, in contrast, she sounds absolutely luxurious, with a texture like crushed velvet.
Lyrically, the big themes hold sway. She fixates on celestial bodies and planetary forces: suns, moons, stars, seas, smoke, snow, waves, weather. She swims through a liquid sky on “1973”; lilacs turn to teardrops in “Petals.” But she also has an ear for small, lovely details, like “corduroy legs running up the stairs,” the image that gives shape to “Corduroy Legs,” a delightful, boundless expression of parental love. And if her lyrics sometimes read like the work of someone who’s coming off a lost weekend of tarot cards and John Donne, she also knows when to strip back: In “Falling,” she sings, with devastating simplicity, “Now my phone book / Is filling up with dead friends / And I wonder / Who would answer if I called them.”
Throughout it all, a picture emerges of Orton that’s anxious, playful (“You got a certain way, I swear, of sticking it in,” she leers on “1973”), and even supremely relatable. There are love songs here, and falling-out-of-love songs, and sometimes it takes a while to tell which is which. The twist in a song called “Falling” is that she’s “falling backwards from your arms”; in “Dawnstar,” she sings, “Our love is gaining speed,” but she also admits, “I am thankful that what I have is enough.” Escape velocity is for the young, I think she’s saying; once you reach a certain stage in life, you’re happy just to keep going. And if this all sounds like a case of lowered expectations, the strikingly beautiful “Flesh and Blood,” the album’s peak, turns simple acceptance—of “whatever this is,” as she sings, over and over—into something approaching ecstasy.
Looking back on Trailer Park, Orton told The Quietus in 2009, “I thought, well, if I really am a singer… I must create my own thing and do it, only then will I prove it. But even today I’m still proving it to myself.” But on Kidsticks, she no longer sounds like she has anything left to prove, which is precisely what’s allowed her to make the riskiest album of her career. And she sounds like she’s had the time of her life making it, too.