For the past two decades Erasure has sung of unrequited yearning, producing a sparkling catalogue quickly cited by any advocate of the lush trills, frills, and thrills of synth-pop. The group consists of flamboyant "choirboy" Andy Bell and Vince Clarke, one of electronic music's true innovators, whose past adventures prior to Erasure include forming Depeche Mode (and leaving the band shortly after its debut, Speak & Spell, and archetypal first hit "Just Can't Get Enough") and partnering with blue-eyed soul singer Alison Moyet as Yaz, a.k.a. Yazoo, who recorded classics such as "Situation" and "Don't Go" during its brief existence.
With the 1985 debut of Erasure, however, Clarke and Bell extended the dramatic scope with the addition of swooning and swelling melodies atop mechanized blipping pop. And the diametric emotions of devotion and detachment, genuine affection, and exaggerated affectation resonate throughout Nightbird, Erasure's ninth full-length studio album (not including comps/covers collections) and first collection of original material since 2000's Loveboat (a Mute UK album that saw a soft U.S. release in 2003).
Speaking from his New York hotel room April 14 at 2:00 p.m., hours before the start of Erasure's completely sold-out ten-night stand at Irving Plaza, the 41-year-old Bell was humble yet ardent when he reminisced about the time when he first answered an advertisement posted by Clarke (who is now 45) in the now-defunct British weekly music newspaper Melody Maker. An insomniac and the album's namesake night bird, Bell had just woken up after a night visiting interracial New York gay clubs such as Chi Chi's and Stonewall. Despite his lack of coffee, he cheerily looked at Erasure's legacy and the crisply chirping Nightbird's place in the group's canon.
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"It's a really nice space where we are," said Bell as he reflected on Nightbird, which many are calling a return-to-form for Erasure. "I don't like to hark on about ABBA all the time, but to me [Nightbird] seems like something they might have written if they'd carried on, gotten over their heartbreaks."
The ability to weather heartbreak is this majority shareholder's stake in Erasure's stock and trade. Although the songs may often be splashily swathed in camp, Erasure would not have secured such longevity if it weren't for the audience's ability to identify with Bell's heartfelt hymns. Fischerspooner may share some of the same glittery stage presence and gently distending electro bass lines but certainly does not command the unerring loyalty. (We'll wait until after the next Postal Service album to see how that group fares in carving out an emo-tional legacy.) Breathy multitracked choruses have long carried Bell's buoyant sincerity, from the bounding bass-borne "Victim of Love" and the coming-out balladry of "Hideaway" (both from 1987's Circus) to the chiming, charging "A Little Respect" (on 1988's The Innocents) and the bulbous swoop of "Breathe," the lead single from Nightbird.
When pressed to disclose his inspirations, Bell said that many of these heartbreaks are sung from/to fictional characters. "I do tend to drift off and daydream and I kinda make up all kinds of scenarios and things," he said. "But it's all like, what-if's. I've been with my boyfriend for over twenty years now. Just sometimes I do think about what would happen if we weren't together and how we might like to be, what would have happened if I had the courage to take the fork in the road, so I just kind of put those things into the writing."
There are some far more personal experiences possibly behind Nightbird's melancholic melody, however. Within the last four years, Clarke conquered a drinking problem, Bell's boyfriend had a stroke, and Bell quit cocaine, joined Narcotics Anonymous, had both hips replaced (he's not sure if the damage was from years of drug use or years of performing in high heels), and finally acknowledged he discovered he was HIV-positive in 1998.
The first reaction to that laundry list of bumps-in-the-road might be to expect a gloomy, downcast album. But far from it: While it does have a nocturnal patina, Nightbird is actually Erasure's most kaleidoscopically romantic album. The collection of introspective yet perky midtempo ballads was composed primarily in Clarke's basement studio in Brooklyn in February of 2004, and bridges a reverent naiveté and numbing iciness with pulsing, confident orchestration.
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Part of the reason Erasure sounds both renewed and retuned is the change of approach to the composition process. After Other People's Songs, Bell and Clarke began working collaboratively on original material at Clarke's home with renewed vigor. (Bell spends time in Britain and Spain, while Clarke lives in Brooklyn.) First they revisited their older material and transferred many of those ideas to acoustic form. Clarke explored software synths and ProTools instead of relying on his usual assembly of analog monosynths and digital polysynths. Once they had created a series of chords for the songs, Bell applied wordless vocal melodies and then wove his lyrics through them all.
The result is that Nightbird embodies the flip of the coin. It is an album imbued with the happiness that contrasts with the hurt, the confidence that comes with being a survivor.
"I realize there is a whole generation of young gay men who have no idea who Erasure is at all," acknowledged Bell. "But with Nightbird, I feel we've made one of the best albums we've ever released, and something within which anyone can see something of and for themselves. And perhaps through the popularity of electroclash and such, more people will recognize this."
Throughout Erasure's career there has been an undercurrent of longing and the desire to belong. And with Nightbird, the men of Erasure have come to roost at a sympathetic place where they can produce playful beat.