Album Reviews

Andy Bell – Torsten The Bareback Saint

(Cherry Red) UK release date: 28 July 2014


Andy Bell - Torsten The Bareback Saint2014 has been a busy year for Andy Bell, with one album iPoP in collaboration with Shelter already released in May and a new Erasure album The Violet Flame due next month. Impressively, he has also found time to squeeze in a one man show at Edinburgh with 24 new songs written by Barney Ashton and provocatively presented under the name Torsten The Bareback Saint. While such raging against the dying of the light of a fading pop career is always heartening to see, there’s always going to be concern about quality control and Torsten is a glaring example of where it might need to be applied.

Torsten’s 22 songs form a fairly lengthy song cycle about an immortal hedonist, whose Dorian Gray-like lifestyle leads him to consider bisexuality and eventually suicide. While the songs suggest issues around which the narrative might be formed, they give little context, in the form of consistent pointers of time, place or character, for much of it to make any sense. A song cycle should, by the 19th century definition, be a cycle, moving musically and lyrically through its ideas to return to its starting point. Perhaps the finest modern rock/pop song cycle, The Kinks’ Arthur: Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire, understood this well, channeling music hall and vaudeville to help locate its audience. While Torsten also flirts with vaudeville and cabaret at times, it doesn’t fully understand how their storytelling power can work its magic.

Themes such as immortality are barely explored lyrically, let alone exploited structurally – songs with leading titles like World Without End and Fountain Of Youth prove misleading. At the risk of sounding overly academic, the sexual ennui and eerie permanent adolescence of gay lives that the songs often hint at could have provided the structural basis for a really fascinating song cycle about sexual lives happening over time. What we are left with are snapshots of sexual encounters, relationship dynamics, growing pains and hedonism which, while working well enough on their own terms as pop songs, never add up to more than the sum of their parts. The album’s formidable title isn’t helping much either. It talks the kind of confrontational sexual mores that helped make Hedwig And The Angry Inch such a defining moment of the Queer 1990s, yet the work is so badly equipped to walk that particular spike-heeled walk, you feel rather sorry for it.

It’s a real shame as there is plenty of pop nous evident in the writing here in I Don’t Like, the piano ballad Fountain Of Youth and the majestic electronics and vocal flights of Is It Not Enough. From time to time there is the strong sense that it might simply have made a great pop album, if it had been edited down and shaped into such. The partnership of Bell’s voice and the solid, sometimes inspired, songwriting is often as comfortable a fit as Erasure’s.

As a song cycle, whether as a recording or performance piece, sadly it’s a mess and you feel like at some point, someone should have intervened and called for some tough restructuring. Perhaps Torsten simply shouldn’t be taken so seriously, though. As experimental side projects go, it throws up plenty of interesting moments and the recording at least will give plenty for Erasure fans to chew on.


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