An album of covers and a greatest hits record released in succession would suggest a musical career winding down to its end. Erasure’s last two albums, Other People’s Songs and Hits! were just such releases. Indeed, their last studio album, Loveboat, was met with a lukewarm response – and that was some four years ago.
It would be understandable if Erasure were winding down. After 29 consecutive top 40 singles and a slew of top five albums behind them, Messrs Clarke and Bell could be forgiven for donning slippers and enjoying the fruits of a long career. Not even they could go on writing material in the “instant classic” mode of Stop! and Love To Hate You – could they?
But the duo’s knack for melody and Clarke’s icon status as the synth guru par excellence mean that an entire album of new material will always garner interest – and Nightbird is just that, 11 new songs. But after Loveboat, is it any good?
From the europop opening of No Doubt, complete with a showcase of Andy Bell’s familiar and extensive vocal range, the good news is that if Loveboat was experimental, Nightbird puts pop melodies right back in the vanguard of the mix.
The extent to which Bell’s recent health challenges – two hip replacements, pneumonia and the announcement that he’s HIV+ (he has been for several years) – may have affected the tempo of the record is unclear, but something like half of it is infused with laid-back beats, with more than a hint of the night about them. I Broke It All In Two, I Bet You’re Mad At Me and lead single Breathe – which showed there’s life yet by crashing into the top five of the singles chart – are all woozy bleeps of electronica, showcasing Bell’s impressively rich voice. His range runs from deep and thrilling to high and shrilling – he’s on top form here.
Breathe’s keyboards mark the point at which Belgian trance finds its zenith on the record – it finds space for synth sounds that would be at home on a Lasgo single. Towards the end there’s even a counter-melody which calls to mind the theme from A Question of Sport – bizarrely.
Frenetically theatrical numbers are Erasure through and through of course – and we do at least get a couple of these more upbeat numbers as well. Those eurosynths are back for I’ll Be There, while All This Time Still Falling Out Of Love and Don’t Say You Love Me – two of the stand-outs of the whole record – are fast enough to get toes tapping. None of these are quite anthems in the mould of A Little Respect or Sometimes, for the beat’s just not fast enough nor the choruses memorable enough, but they’re not at all bad.
The title of Sweet Surrender further suggests Erasure have been listening to some of the acts they helped to influence, namely those Belgians. Milk Inc covered another Sweet Surrender with Tony Hadley with very similar sounds. And yet Bell’s trademark vocal layering still mark these tracks as distinctly Erasure.
Running through the lyrics of much of the record is a sadness, a sense of fallibility that suggests ending rather than beginning, a man preparing to wave farewell to a love gone. That we bother to listen to the lyrics suggests that Erasure have reprised that which made them notable in the first place – intelligent, cohesive lyrics set to memorable melodies in pop-techno arrangements. Simple, but effective.
I Bet You’re Mad At Me rounds the album off with more lushly deep vocals and the night-time feel that characterises the bulk of Nightbird, suggesting that with their most impressive original record in ages, Erasure are not yet ready to bid us farewell.