A Little More Respect
For a onetime habitué of late-night discos, Vince Clarke sure is an early bird. At 11:00 a.m. on a recent Friday, he's up and alert-sounding over the phone from his room in a lavish Atlantic City hotel.
"Oh, I'm a 5:00 a.m. riser these days," he says in a sardonic tone. "That's what happens when you're a new father." That's right: The production backbone of the city-smart and famously flamboyant act is a family man, tucked away with wife and child in Maine, no less.
Clarke is half of the originally London-based duo Erasure, which helped define the synthpop sound of the Eighties. He was always sort of strait-laced compared to Andy Bell, Erasure's energetic and loveably dramatic lyricist and singer. Clarke usually stayed just out of the spotlight, soberly manipulating his bank of synthesizers, leaving Bell to emote and dance center stage.
So the release of the group's twelfth studio album, Union Street, in 2006 was troubling. A collection of acoustic versions of older songs, it was impressive for coaxing a mournful pathos from former dance ditties, like the 1986 smash "Oh L'Amour." But often it had a weary air, as if Erasure might be running out of steam. Which wasn't the case.
"Our recent records had been getting slower and slower as we got older," he says. "I suppose if we had carried on in the same vein, eventually we would have just stopped. It would have been dinosaur music."
So Clarke resolved to do something about the pair's "midtempo crisis." Their latest offering, Light at the End of the World, is fiercely electronic, fiercely danceable, fiercely optimistic. Even the album's liner notes, art-directed by Bell, are fiercely sparkly-happy, almost overwhelmingly so. The cover features a giant diamond set off by bursts of blue and purple lights, seeming to float in a constellation in which the stars turn into sparkles around Erasure's logo. But thinking positive in crappy times is the pair's forte. After all, they churned out an astonishing string of international multiplatinum hits during the Reagan era and the AIDS crisis -- not exactly a welcoming climate for a nightclub-spawned act whose frontman has always been openly gay.
When Erasure began, the field was wide-open for experimentation with new drum machines and keyboards. Clarke had already found success as synth man for Yaz (big hit in the states: "Situation," instantly recognizable by its computery, beeping intro). The crossover sensibility carried over to the new group. Together he and Bell developed a knack for crafting purely electronic music with a real pop feeling. Bell's universally themed tales of love added an organic, empathetic note. Perhaps their closest musical cousins were the Pet Shop Boys, another male duo. But Erasure skipped much of the latter's irony. Its music had feeling, but was bright, and lacked the often-corny sense of melodrama of the New Romantic set.
The duo's first album, Sometimes, was released in 1986, and although initial response was weak, it eventually reached number two on the UK charts. The Innocents in 1988 gave Erasure its first number one album there; the single "Chains of Love" landed the group on the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time in the United States. Virtually every album and an attendant single have charted in both countries since then.
Almost weirdly, Erasure has produced a steady output of one album every year or two (with the exception of two three-year intervals, in the late '90s and early '00s). Clarke has had side projects, like creating background music for exhibitions, and Bell put out a solo album, Electric Blue, in 2005. But Clarke says Erasure remains the major outlet for both.
It seems like continuing to write new albums would be a lot of pressure, considering the group's immense track record, but Clarke takes it in stride. The main thing for Light at the End of the World, he says, was to return to their roots and pick up the pace. "We always intended to make the record electronic. It's what I like best," he says. "When we sat down to write the songs, the only rule we had is that they had to be as up-tempo as possible."
Beats per minute aside, the album is marked by life change; it's both wistful and hopeful. Bell had broken up with a longtime partner and was discovering new love when they started it. Clarke and his wife moved from New York to the country outside of Portland, Maine, and baby Oscar was born a year and a half ago.
They wrote these songs in and around Bell's hotel room in Portland. The woodsy, coastal environment was suitably contemplative. "We recorded it in the fall, and the leaves were all turning golden brown and the waves were all crashing down," Clarke recalls.
But Clarke's family life dictated that they work just a few hours each afternoon. Despite this, the two men stuck with their usual songwriting process, which is spontaneous and largely undefined.
"What we do is we'll sit around with a tape recorder. I'll work out a chord formation," Clarke says. "Andy will sing a melody over that chord formation, and then we write maybe four- or eight-bar sections which we record. Then I take those bits away with me to the studio and then put them together like a jigsaw [puzzle]. We decide what will work as a bridge, or what we can repeat, and then fit it together that way. Once that's done, Andy goes and works on the lyrics."
Even more unexpectedly, the ever-present synthesizers and machines come at the end of the process. Rather than arrive at a session with preprogrammed beats or loops, Clarke and Bell create these unconnected bits and pieces with low-tech tools: a guitar and a tape recorder.
"I don't use the technology when we're writing the tunes. We'd never get a song written. We get sidetracked," Clarke says. "The songs that we allow to be on an album are the ones that we can sing with just a guitar accompaniment or piano accompaniment. Those are the strongest."
Lyrically Bell gets personal on Light. "When a Lover Leaves You" is a bittersweet ode to the end of Bell's twenty-year relationship; "Storm in a Tea Cup" shows him reflecting on his mother's underlying strength as she battles alcoholism. But in the end it's clear that Bell is a hopeless romantic -- dig other song titles like "Sucker for Love," "Golden Heart," and "How My Eyes Adore You."
Although Erasure's latest album might not quite be escapist, the Knight Center show Saturday should prove to be a concoction of utter fantasy. The duo's last major national tour, in spring 2005, was a silvery sci-fi explosion. There were soul divas as space-suited back-up singers; Bell, at one point, wearing only a shiny bathing suit and gesturing with large black ostrich feathers; and explosions of actual glitter. And this was for more intimate club gigs.
"Mostly I'll rely on Andy leaping about more than he does already," says Clarke, slightly chuckling. "We've always done costumes and tried to make the show bigger than it really is, just because there are no guitarists running about, or drummer. Andy has a big enough personality onstage to pull that off."
Noticeable at an Erasure gig, too, is the remarkable openness and enthusiasm of the crowd. The group's sweet, hopeful tones and free-your-mind-and-ass rhythms have garnered it an exceptionally rabid fan base.
"We still see faces in the audience that we saw when we first started. I think for some reason people have taken us into their hearts," Clark says. "I think because we're not cool, actually. We're not standing onstage and trying to be cool at all. People really like that in an artist or a musician."
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