Erasure – Light at the End of the World
Mute Records (5/22/07)
Pop / Electronic / Dance
Available At Amazon.com
In the beginning, there was a band you may have heard of called Depeche Mode. In their early days, their sound was centered around some of the most unique keyboards of the entire New Wave movement. The keyboards were done by a young man named Vince Clarke, and it gained him some attention in the industry. Soon, though, Vince ran into an impasse. Depeche wanted to take their music in different directions, and Vince got bored with working with them. So, Vince separated from the group, looking for a cleaner sound. Something with just vocals and keyboards, he thought. He found a person he believed had the perfect chops to front his keyboards, a young alto named Alison Moyet. Together, they formed a duo and started recording. If you lived in the UK, they called themselves Yazoo. If you were in the US, they were simply Yaz. Their first album, Upstairs at Eric’s (named for their producer), is now considered a classic of New Wave, with radio standards like “Don’t Go”, “Only You” and “Situation”, and sold quite well. However, they suffered a sophomore slump with their second album, You and Me Both, and there were fractures between the two. Moyet wanted to move into traditional pop. Clarke wanted to move his keyboard sounds to the new dance music style that was evolving in the wake of the belated merger of New Wave and disco. Clarke needed a new voice. Maybe someone a little more feminine, he thought.
He found Andy Bell. Well, his counter-tenor was definitely more feminine-sounding than Moyet, and he had a soaring falsetto. It worked. After more than two decades, they’re still recording together as Erasure, producing some of the most influental dance music around. And now they’ve graced 2007 with their presence on their new release, Light at the End of the World.
Erasure’s problem is their own history. Their tracks have been heard in clubs all over the world since the mid-Eighties. Clarke’s keyboard work has been sampled to death by other artists. They’ve been mixed, remixed, and re-re-mixed to such an extent that every music fan has a different view of them. When they did an EP of ABBA covers, ABBA tribute band Bjorn Again returned the favor and covered Erasure material. And then there’s the shadow of their 1988 classic The Innocents, one of the most perfect pop albums of not only its era, but of its decade, the home of an embarassingly rich set of such disks. Erasure’s most noteworthy tracks are on there; songs like “Ship of Fools”, “Chains of Love”, and their most popular and famous track, “A Little Respect”, which opened that album with a nuclear blast. They’ve been trying for twenty years to beat it, and came up short each time. Can Light at the End of the World finally accomplish that long-sought goal?
They put themselves behind the eight-ball in that regard with the release date. It’s virtually nineteen years to the day of the release of The Innocents (they missed by only two days). If I’m Clarke and Bell, I’d avoid late-May release dates. However, they (and their home for all this time, Mute Records) may be attempting a little sympathetic magic.
It’s sort of worked. Light at the End of the World is a strong album, on par with other Erasure albums like Wild and The Circus. They kicked the album into gear with a terrific first single, “I Could Fall in Love With You”. It’s a perfect example of Clarke’s signature keyboard sounds and a vocal performance from Bell that shows off his terrific range and ability to belt when necessary and then fall back into the mix to create a great blend with the keyboards, mostly in the multitracked chorus vocals. It’s a tour de force that ranks up there with Erasure’s best singles. It’s a logical development for them, featuring the “heavier” version of Erasure that audiences may be most familiar with from songs like “Stop”.
“I Could Fall in Love With You” is the best track on the album, but the songs surrounding it certainly aren’t a disaster. The album opener, “Sunday Girl”, should be considered for single release. Starting off with a flourish of distorted vocals, it resolves into Clarke’s ideal in his work, a combination of Arabesque sounds exchanging places perfectly with electronic beeps and bleats that have been currency in British music since Joe Meek’s work in the early 1960s. The lyrics are a pure distillation of Saturday night at your local dance club, finding the ideal girl to dance into Sunday morning with. It’s a blast of pure joy that’s a perfect opener.
“Fly Away” is another bit of brilliance. It’s Bell at his best, treating his voice like another of Clarke’s keyboards, soaring all over the place to create a beautiful dance ballad. If “I Could Fall in Love With You” exemplifies the “heavier” side of Erasure, this is a brilliant example of the “lighter” side. Bell’s vocals are right up front on “Darlene”; it’s an adequate but not great love song. Those weaknesses are countered by a slightly different approach on “When a Lover Leaves You”, where Bell restrains himself to give the material a little more gravitas, and Clarke creates a direct approach with the backing keyboards, laying off the extraneous bits and constructing a perfect frame for Bell to work inside. That song’s only problem is in its abrupt ending.
The album closes off in magnificent fashion with a highly atmospheric song, “Glass Angel”, with strong minor chords, great keyboard flourishes, and Bell buried in the mix more than usual, which benefits the track greatly. It’s a rather uncharacteristic song for Erasure, and a great song to play for those nay-sayers who categorize Erasure as mindless dance music. Obviously, these two songs are far apart in style, but “Glass Angel” reminded me a great deal of Dan Fogelberg’s “Ghosts”, the closer on his great double album The Innocent Age. Both songs used similar minor chord changes to create a similar effect, and used a similar theme of evocation of memory with a proper musical environment to trigger that feeling in a listener. It’s a great way to close an album, and it’s not done often enough. It shows that Clarke and Bell had some kind of conceptual framework for this album and just didn’t dump off a throwaway to close it.
Unfortunately, the album’s saddled with some weak tracks. “Storm in a Teacup” is an example of Bell trying too hard to overcome weak material. “Sucker for Love” is rather insubstantial. Normally, Clarke’s very careful with his keyboard sounds, but the ones that start off “Golden Hearts” don’t really resolve into the remainder of the song very well. He does correct himself in the middle eight, though, but that’s shot down by a rather ham-fisted transition back into the chorus. “How My Eyes Adore You” can be taken or left; it isn’t very compelling.
So, they weren’t able to beat The Innocents, but that’s almost an impossible task. However, Erasure came out with a dance record that both reflects back on their history and positions itself as perfect for 2007. If ten tracks of pretty good Erasure isn’t enough, there’s a version available with two bonus tracks, but their placement ruins the effect of “Glass Angel” a bit. All in all, Light at the End of the World shows that Erasure is still vital and important to the development and popularization of dance music after two decades of work, an eternity in a field that produces acts which have the lifespans of mayflies (look at any of the acts that had big hit singles with dance tracks in the early 90s; most of them were one and done). There are signs of slow evolution to be seen on here, as on every Erasure release, which shows that vitality and importance to great effect.
And, finally, there’s the personal aspect of this album. The music of the early ’80s is the music of my later teenage years, and I have that affection for it that everyone has for the music of their youth. It’s a rather settling experience for me to listen to Vince Clarke’s keyboards. I can trace a line through personal experience from “Just Can’t Get Enough” to “I Could Fall in Love With You”, connecting the dots easily through “Don’t Go”, “Victim of Love”, “A Little Respect”, “Stop” and the ABBA covers, among many others. It’s a bit of warm comfort after hearing songs from that period being played on oldies stations, and makes me feel a little less decrepit. And, of course, makes me get up off my ass and dance.