Bell and Clarke prove they can still deliver pop songs that are both high energy and high quality
Ask an Erasure fan when Andy Bell and Vince Clarke last produced a truly great album and the answer will vary. Some will suggest that 2005’s ‘Nightbird’ was the last time Erasure’s particular brand of synthpop really worked; the more cynical might say they’ve never bettered 1991’s analogue synth masterpiece ‘Chorus’ and its attendant Phantasmagorical Entertainment tour.
Leaving to one side the charming ‘Snow Globe’, 2013’s seasonal collection of Christmas staples sprinkled with some encouraging new Bell/Clarke compositions, it would be difficult to find a fan prepared to call the duo’s last proper album – 2011’s ‘Tomorrow’s World’ – one of their best. Apart from a couple of standout moments, it was a directionless exercise in careless europop, wherein the synth stalwart Clarke seemed to have all but forgotten his 30-odd year reputation as an electro deity. Working with the trendy Frankmusik for ‘Tomorrow’s World’ was problematic, particularly when Frank subjected Bell’s distinctive, soulful vocals to modish auto-tune effects. Definitely not classic Erasure, then.
For ‘The Violet Flame’, Bell and Clarke have worked with Richard X, and the producer’s authoritative knowledge of the dynamics of classic electronic music proves an excellent choice. Yes, it’s largely a pulsing, 4/4-based affair – all bar two of the 10 cuts are fast, urgent tracks – but unlike ‘Tomorrow’s World’, this is a slickly delivered collection of songs that are far more consistent with Erasure’s legacy.
The tempo is set from the off with ‘Dead Of Night’, an urgent, brooding number with minimal synth work from Clarke and a chorus that consists of little more than Andy Bell repeating the stuttered title of the track over a nagging rhythm. It’s an effortless gesture on the part of the duo, a casual reminder that Erasure can still produce high energy, classy pop without appearing to try too hard.
If ‘Dead Of Night’ exudes unfussy sophistication, the highlight of ‘The Violet Flame’ takes simplicity to a whole new level. ‘Under The Wave’ is an infectious ditty that could easily have come out of the ‘Chorus’ sessions almost 25 years ago. For all its gleeful, analogue-sounding mechanics, what sets ‘Under The Wave’ apart is Bell’s singing. A euphoric dimension is evident throughout the album – the most obvious being the ‘Elevation’ single – but on ‘Under The Wave’ it takes the form of a vocal twist into a chorus that has Bell making judicious use of little more than the wordless “woah” that’s become an Erasure staple over the years. Back in the day, the Erasure singer commented that he loved Blondie’s ‘Atomic’ because it was a whimsical bit of glamorous nonsense; after years of trying to get somewhere close, ‘Under The Wave’ finally seems to realise that goal.
Bell recently said that Clarke prefers ballads while he enjoys the more uptempo numbers – as confirmed by his collaborations with club-oriented artists Dave Audé and Shelter in an already busy 2014. Given the prevalence of perky dancefloor tracks on ‘The Violet Flame’, this feels like Bell’s album, and those looking for flashes of Vince Clarke brilliance could think the resolutely 4/4 template is somewhat limiting for Clarke, even in the context of his minimal techno project with his old Depeche Mode mate Martin Gore as VCMG. But at least the two slower numbers here, the sensitive ‘Be The One’ and the mysterious ‘Smoke And Mirrors’, provide greater opportunity for Clarke to stretch out and show us what he can do.
Those two songs, plus the tender melancholia of ‘Stayed A Little Late Tonight’, also showcase the theatricality that usually only emerges from Bell’s vocals when he’s performing on stage. As well as being a great pop singer, he has a neat line in melodramatic staginess, as evidenced by the success of his Edinburgh Fringe performance of ‘Torsten The Bareback Saint’. He has rarely brought that quality to an Erasure album before and ‘The Violet Flame’ is all the better for him allowing it to come through a little stronger.
‘The Violet Flame’ might well be described as a return to form. In truth, Erasure may never again produce anything that scales the same pop heights as ‘Sometimes’ or ‘A Little Respect’ or ‘Love To Hate You’, but as an exercise in quality electronic pop, ‘The Violet Flame’ is hard to fault.