English synth-pop duo Erasure — keyboardist/songwriter Vince Clarke (ex-Depeche Mode, Assembly) and vocalist/lyricist Andy Bell — nearly cornered the market on romantic new wave expression in the late ’80s. While other electronic contemporaries were building escapist flights out of their angst and depression, Erasure was joyfully reveling in such misery. Songs like “Oh L’Amour,” “Blue Savannah” and “Chains of Love” work because Bell’s anguish and masochistically hopeful words — carried aloft by his soaring, often delicate, voice — are of universal constitution, while Clarke’s unforgettable melodic hooks support his partner’s pronouncements with complementary ease.
The music on Wonderland, none too surprisingly (although Bell co-wrote most of the songs), sounds like Yazoo. Though the effect is disconcerting, as if Bell had simply replaced Alison Moyet, Yazoo was a fine band, and Clarke is more than welcome to keep up the good work, regardless of who with. The best tracks (“Heavenly Action” and “Oh l’Amour”) are memorable pop confections. (The CD adds two tracks.)
Erasure’s second album was released twice: the one-disc The Circus and, later, as a double 12-inch set of remixes and re-recordings. (The CD of the second version adds seven tracks.) Although the original LP’s material is mostly cut from the same synth-dance cloth as the first record, the arrangements here are richer, more intricate and inventive. Unfortunately, Bell’s flat delivery of the pessimistic and strife-ridden romance lyrics leaves them unaffecting and whiny; he even renders the plainly lascivious “Sexuality” and “Sometimes” with a sickening lack of enthusiasm. This is the sort of misery that deserves to be left alone. (“It Doesn’t Have to Be,” which leads off the album, was first released on a pre-LP 12- inch.)
The Two Ring Circus — an abridged set of songs with a revamped running order and a side of orchestral versions — is a significantly better record, as the elongated remixes open up the instrumentation while downplaying the vocals. The powerful “Hideaway,” a sweepingly melodic number about a young person coming out of the closet, gets the most- improved award. Three songs (one reprised from Erasure’s first LP) that eschew synthesizers for strings, pianos, horns and timpani not only indicate healthy stylistic catholicism, they coax Bell into far more emotive performances.
Stephen Hague produced The Innocents, an OMD-like textured dance-pop collection that hasn’t got many good songs beyond “A Little Respect” and “Heart of Stone.” But clever arrangements that don’t all sound exactly the same render the nebulous romantic lyrics superfluous; toning down Bell’s maddening delivery helps immeasurably. (The CD adds “When I Needed You” and the inevitable “River Deep, Mountain High.”)
The self-produced Crackers International mini- album contains four new (and otherwise non-LP) songs, highlighting Bell’s flamboyant vocals on the hi-NRG “Stop!” and “Knocking on Your Door” (each in two mixes).
Emboldened by global stardom, Erasure stretched themselves a bit in the vastly superior Wild!, which adds a welcome dynamic assortment of styles to the duo’s usual disco chugalug. Revealing new-found restraint, variety and artistry, Wild! has delicate ballads, a piano instrumental and gentle techno-pop to recommend it. Standouts: the giddy “Star” and the Latinesque “La Gloria.”
Chorus is a heady album that expands on Wild! ‘s experimentation while solidifying the duo’s melodic skill. Clarke’s synth strains show more subtlety and depth, making many of the songs (“Joan,” even the ’80s throwback “Love to Hate You”) more enticing; Bell’s singing is likewise improved. His progressive scale-climbing on “Am I Right?” and stunning overdubbed backup work (the act’s oft-overlooked ace-in-the-hole) on the title track help make Chorus one of Erasure’s best.
The sole redeeming aspect of the forgettable Abba- esque, an EP of four campy covers, was the carnival- like theater tour undertaken to promote it. Clarke’s zippy Synth-mobile that raced about the stage and Bell’s homoerotic ringleader routine made up for the fluff of songs like “Voulez Vous” and “S.O.S.” That same year saw the release of Pop! The First 20 Hits, an exhaustive singles roundup.
Bell’s lyrics are the star of I Say I Say I Say; the album displays unprecedented happiness and optimism (“Like a knight in shining armor, you came over to save me”) and spirit (the uncharacteristic spontaneity of “Run to the Sun”). A church choir buoys “So the Story Goes” and “Miracle”; “Always,” a poignant and infectious ode to a lost lover, brought Erasure a return to the American singles chart.
Erasure reveals Clarke’s emergent fascination with Pink Floyd’s flightier works — see “Rescue Me,” “Fingers & Thumbs (Cold Summer’s Day)” and the endless introduction to “Rock Me Gently” — which occasionally clashes with Bell’s words of longing and ache. The lyrics’ straight-for-the-heart effect do retain their magic, however, even moving past simple romantic themes on “Grace,” a plea for simple human consideration toward all.