by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
They’ve never quite had the same critical acclaim as New Order or Depeche Mode, but Erasure is one of the most consistently strong synth-pop outfits to emerge from the ‘80s. Ironically, Erasure was co-founded by songwriter/keyboardist Vince Clarke, who also started Depeche Mode. While he didn’t stay in that band for very long, departing after just one album (Speak & Spell), he provided the group with their initial sonic blueprint and also wrote one of their longest-lasting hits, the dancefloor classic “Just Can’t Get Enough.” After leaving that band, Clarke would team up with the powerful voice of Alison Moyet in the duo Yaz, whose debut album Upstairs at Eric’s yielded several enduring synth-pop classics in “Situation,” “Only You,” and “Don’t Go.” Had he retired from music at that point, Clarke still would have been assured of a place in music history for his early work, but Clarke (after forming a short-lived duo called The Assembly with former Undertones lead vocalist Feargal Sharkey and reaching the U.K. Top Five with “Never Never”) would team up in 1985 with Andy Bell to form Erasure. The duo never would have quite the same impact on the charts in the U.S. that they did in their home country, where they’ve reached the Top 40 thirty-one times (reaching the Top Ten on fifteen of those occasions), but they did manage to reach the American Top 40 three times. The first two of those hits stemmed from the excellent 1988 album The Innocents: the innovative, chugging synth-pop/acoustic hybrid “A Little Respect” and the bubbly dance-pop of “Chains of Love.”
The duo didn’t exactly follow up their American success in predictable fashion, the next release instead being a six-track EP entitled Crackers International bearing four new songs (including the underrated non-single “The Hardest Part” and a synth-pop Christmas song in “She Won’t Be Home”) and two remixes. Neither the EP nor its leadoff single “Stop!” did much on the American charts, unfortunately, and the duo’s next two full-lengths, Wild! and Chorus, would similarly fail to repeat the success of The Innocents. The duo’s next move was even more unpredictable: a full EP of Abba covers entitled Abba-esque. By 1994, the duo hadn’t had a Top 40 hit in the U.S. in six years, and none of their singles had got any higher than #83 (the peak position of Chorus’ title cut), so Clarke and Bell were an unlikely bet to make a comeback. Yet, come back, they did, and their 1994 outing I Say I Say I Say would garner them a major American radio hit (and a third Top 40 hit) in “Always.” While the album temporarily boosted the duo’s profile in a major way on this side of the Atlantic, the album has sadly been forgotten somewhat to time, and “Always” doesn’t pop up on radio these days nearly as often as either Top 40 hit from The Innocents.
It’s truly unfortunate, because I Say I Say I Say is one of the duo’s most astonishing outings. A large part of this is due to the endlessly fascinating musical soundscapes created here by Clarke and his synthesizers. Rather than sticking to the standard Top 40-oriented synth-pop sound of their prior albums, Clarke instead builds these songs on musical beds that almost give you the impression that this music was written not so much to scale the charts but to serve as the backdrop for a video game. [The wonderful album cover, which features a barely-noticeable cartoon illustration of Clarke and Bell sitting in the far distance of a wintry landscape with a towering castle behind them, only adds to that impression.] From the opening notes of the hypnotic synth loop that kicks off the first cut, “Take Me Back,” to the happy, Star Mario-like synth loop in the intro of “I Love Saturday,” to the bubbly overlapping staccato notes that kick off the closing cut, “Because You’re So Sweet,” the backing tracks on the album are overflowing with intriguing synth motifs that sound like they might as well have been plucked from a Nintendo or Sega Genesis game (especially on the cut “Man in the Moon,” which even opens with a synth line that distinctly sounds like it belongs in a “Castlevania” game).
If executed badly, this could have resulted in a really terrible record, but Clarke handles it so masterfully that it simply comes across as playful and creates an appealing ambience that has the effect of nearly making you feel as if you have stepped inside of an old-school console game or the winter wonderland depicted on the album cover, and this is consequently an especially fun album to listen to around the holidays or in snowy weather.
Even vocalist Andy Bell helps add to the ambience of the album via his wall of harmonies on “Take Me Back,” which visually creates just as much of a wonderland in the listener’s mind as Clarke’s jittery synths do, and his lyrics for the song (particularly the line “let me dive into the lake where winter hides the snow”) could not be more fitting. Given the heavy video-game-like ambience of the album’s backing tracks, you might think Bell might be a little out of his element here in relation to the more traditional synth-pop of the duo’s prior albums, but Bell seems to be having as much fun here as he did on Abba-esque, and both his singing and his lyrics are impressive throughout, especially on the bubbly “Always,” and the ballads “Man in the Moon” and “Because You’re So Sweet.”
In some respects, it’s easy to see why nothing else on here followed “Always” into the Top 40 on American shores – not that this music isn’t catchy (on the contrary, nearly every cut here has at least one very solid hook to remember it by), but much of what’s here isn’t obvious club fodder in the way that Erasure’s music typically is, and while it may not have torn up the singles charts like The Innocents did, it may nonetheless be the most consistent and fascinating piece of album art Bell and Clarke ever made.