(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #36 – released November 24, 1992)
Track listing: Who Needs Love (Like That) / Heavenly Action / Oh l’Amour / Sometimes / It Doesn’t Have To Be / Victim of Love / The Circus / Ship of Fools / Chains of Love / A Little Respect / Stop! / Drama! / You Surround Me / Blue Savannah / Star / Chorus / Love To Hate You / Am I Right? / Breath of Life / Take A Chance On Me
Erasure is the quintessential synth-pop duo of its era, if not the wittiest one (Pet Shop Boys) or the funniest (Sparks) or the sleaziest (Soft Cell) or the most accepted by the mainstream (Eurythmics) or the most innovative (OMD circa Dazzle Ships) or the most political (The Communards). Still, they exemplify an “opposites attract” component that is so elemental to the genre, pairing an outlandish, flamboyant singer (Andy Bell) with a bookish, stone-faced synth wizard (Vince Clarke). In their late ‘80s/early ‘90s heyday, they were a force of nature in their homeland of the UK, scoring five consecutive number one albums and a dozen top ten hits; their US sales were far more modest, limited to two top twenty singles (“Chains of Love”, “A Little Respect”) from 1988’s The Innocents (probably their best studio LP) and a fluke third hit (“Always”) six years later.
Pop! The First 20 Hits is exactly what the title claims it to be, collecting the band’s UK singles-to-date in chronological order, a format obviously modeled on Pet Shop Boys’ Discography from twelve months earlier. And while Erasure has interesting album tracks scattered throughout their discography (especially by the time you reach Chorus (1991)), Pop! is an ideal showcase for them. Like ABBA (whose songs gave Erasure their sole number one UK single via the ABBA-esque covers EP in summer ’92), Bell/Clarke are a consummate singles act. Naturally, not everything on Pop! scales the heights of “Chains of Love” or “A Little Respect” or even “Love To Hate You” but it has absolutely no all-out duds—not even a sappy aberration like “I Have A Dream”, which I always skip over on ABBA Gold.
Here’s the conundrum to grasping Erasure’s appeal: a lot of their music may sound dated due to Clarke’s fondness for cheesy synths, and Bell’s often simplistic lyrics and heightened campiness are inevitably off-putting for some. However, the band’s sheer, unadulterated exuberance is so complete and sincerely felt that it has the power to nearly cancel out such deterrents. The best Erasure tunes practically explode with the notion that a three-minute pop song can sweep away your troubles with a killer chorus, an excess of perky, fizzy undeniable hooks or just a sense of gleeful abandon. While the idea of pop music as redemption is as old as the hills, Erasure take it to new extremes, as if life itself depends on whether or not they can compel the listener to hum along and feel similarly transformed.
The band’s early singles are pleasant enough but pale in comparison to Clarke’s prior work as one half of the short-lived Yazoo (known as Yaz in the US), partially because Bell is nowhere near as agile as that band’s singer, Alison Moyet; also, Clarke seems to have altered very little of Yazoo’s sound palette. “Oh l’Amour” is the first Erasure single to really register, mostly due to Bell’s tremulous vocal, which perfectly fits the song’s key lyric, “What’s a boy in love supposed to do?” “Sometimes” is the great leap forward: opening with an attention-grabbing, sinus-clearing wail from Bell, all the key elements are in place, from a lighter-than-air tone offset by Bell’s urgent demeanor to a catchy, immense chorus. It’s all buffed and polished to a fine shine (dig the trumpet solo after the second chorus) yet feels effortless, exuding both ecstasy and goodwill. Unsurprisingly, it was the band’s first big European hit, kicking off a string of likeminded follow-ups full of little inventive touches to distinguish each one: the odd but acceptable African chant in the middle of “It Doesn’t Have To Be”, the obvious but lovable oompah-pah arrangement of “The Circus”, the winning yet deliciously tart defiance of “Victim of Love”.
With The Innocents and its gorgeously overwrought first single “Ship of Fools”, Bell and Clarke let their ambitions show without sacrificing the simple pleasures established by their previous hits. Follow-up “Chains of Love” finally broke them in the US: hinging upon an almost remedial synth hook, the song nevertheless soars on soulful chord changes, gospel-like female backing vocals and the affirmative joy that comes from working through pain, with Bell singing, “Don’t give up, don’t give up, now,” as the promise of liberation blossoms and resounds behind him. “A Little Respect” goes even further: a forlorn yet danceable ballad, it puts Bell’s ever-elastic performance (alternately furiously stringing phrases together and stretching out other words like “soul” to umpteen syllables) against a universally appealing melody and a rich, warm wall of sound eons away from the skeletal backing of “Oh l’Amour”. And “Stop!” is a massive adrenaline rush that fully warrants the exclamation point in its title, electro Ramones-simple but instantly thrilling, all synapses firing as Bell insists, “We’ll be together again,” and Clarke does all he can to ensure that that happens.
Although the band’s next album, Wild! (1989) is often an overreaching mess, its singles are excellent. “Drama!” begins all serene and subdued but soon ramps up to “Stop!”-level energy, only with a chewier lyric regarding “the infinite complexities of love” and a kitchen-sink arrangement full of orchestral stabs, record scratches and thunderous, damning exclamations of “Guilty!”. “Blue Savannah” sets its sights on classicist nostalgia, the mechanical beat gently loping along with ease while Bell’s lush, multi-tracked vocals and Clarke’s acoustic piano runs lend a human touch. The bouncy, slightly twangy “Star” takes a cue from Latin-derived rhythms and Eastern European melodies but sounds so much like its own unique thing that the word “pastiche” hardly comes to mind. Slow-burner “You Surround Me” is this period’s hidden treasure: delving into his lower register, Bell’s croon is a long way from his excitable waver on Pop!’s earliest tracks, and when he suddenly swoops up to a falsetto at the chorus’ “to my sen-sessss” part, he nearly matches Moyet (and Annie Lennox) for intensity and dexterity.
As Pop! winds down, it alternates between attempts at social commentary (the ecology-minded “Chorus”, the contemplative “Am I Right?”, where Bell broods like a new-wave Auden) and decidedly less-serious stuff like “Love To Hate You”. A deliriously campy kiss-off teeming with horror-film keyboards, a pounding beat and fake crowd noise, it deliberately swipes the recognizable string melody from “I Will Survive” while Bell spouts off knowingly catty lyrics such as, “And the lovers that you sent for me / didn’t come with any satisfaction guarantee.” A worthy companion piece to Abba’s “Money, Money, Money”, it paved the way for ABBA-esque the following year; “Take a Chance on Me” from that EP closes out Pop! with a wink and a nod (and, just to keep you on your toes, an incongruous but fun female reggae toast before the last chorus). In between those two songs sits another underrated gem: “Breath of Life” is the band’s lost hi-NRG disco anthem, careening on by with Clarke’s ping-ponging synths and Bell’s declarations of self-worth, his voice soaring off into the night.
Here’s another secret facet to Erasure’s appeal: not only are they a profoundly uncool band, they seem to know, accept and even embrace it. For all their pretensions (their excessively theatrical Phantasmagorical Entertainment Tour from around this time fully lived up to its name), Bell and Clarke have always come off as down-to-earth and utterly sincere pop stars refreshingly unapologetic about who they are. Bell, for instance, has been openly gay from the start of his career—I can’t begin to explain how significant this was for gay teens like myself who had next to no representation in pop music at the time. The heterosexual Clarke as well has mostly stayed true to his dinky synth-pop muse, forgoing stylistic trends or obvious, audience-broadening moves. That they’ve stayed together for three decades speaks to their rare chemistry and friendship. Although long past their commercial and artistic peaks, they still occasionally eke out great singles such as “Breathe” (from 2005’s above-average Nightbird) or “Reason” (from last year’s The Violet Flame). Pop! adeptly documents a golden era for Bell and Clarke, making the case that sometimes, a strong, consistent greatest hits album is all a band needs to secure a legacy.
Up next: A man could lose himself in London.
“Breath of Life”: