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Synth therapy for dark times

Erasure's latest album reminded me once again why the band has always been my dear little secret and go-to choice, if I need to comfort myself, sing at the top of my lungs while driving or dance as hard as is humanely possible for an inhibited middle-aged man.

One day the boy decided / to let them know the way he felt inside

He could not stand to hide it / his mother, she broke down and cried

Oh, my father / why don't you talk to me now?

Oh, my mother / do you still cry yourself to sleep?

Are you still proud of your little boy?

The lyric snippet is taken from Erasure's lesser-known fan favourite, Hideaway, from the band's The Circus album, which finally launched them into superstardom in 1987. Their debut disc Wonderland flopped and must have made Vince Clarke somewhat pensive and irate, having previously enjoyed success with Depeche Mode and Yazoo.

However, The Circus' first single Sometimes, released in October 1986, became Erasure's first huge hit, and introduced me to the band, to the rhythm of which I have grown from a withdrawn nerd who was the only one in the village listening to "gay pop" to an infantile kidult struggling with low professional self-esteem and aimlessness, stuck in gilded memories of a better past, even though a vegetarian meal back in the 80s was mainly Chinese cabbage and shredded swedes, and the Finnish national sport, a version of baseball, was mandatory in PE.

Hideaway was Erasure's response to Bronski Beat's Smalltown Boy released a couple of years earlier, a description of growing pains and coming out of the closet. I would argue that very few boring old white straight men besides yours truly have assigned powerplay status to Hideaway on their playlists of empowering tracks. For me personally, part of the memorability of Hideaway is related to the best ever concert experience of my life, when in a packed hall in Berlin's Columbiahalle, the most colourful, wildest and most enthusiastic fan base you can imagine, sang the song word for word with all their heart.

Fast forward to 2020 and the 35th anniversary of Erasure that, naturally, received no attention whatsoever in Finland, even though Depeche Mode's 40th celebrations saw some proper press coverage. In the British Isles, Erasure's 18th studio album The Neon and its singles enjoyed a much more festive reception, peaking at number four in the UK charts, marking the band's highest position in 26 years. I know, nowadays you can chart with ridiculously small sales figures, Spotify is a greedy exploiter, generic playlists are simply crap and radio "personalities" tiresome twats with fake laughters, but please allow me to enjoy at least this, as nowadays there are so few things in life to be happy about.

Especially in the UK, the German market, and on the dance and club charts in the US, the band has always enjoyed some well-deserved appreciation. However, Erasure has often been overshadowed by its supposedly cooler contemporaries, which I believe is mainly due to the band's approach of sticking more closely to the old-school synth pop genre. Some may find that clunky and out of date, but for me it's simply sincere, touching and heartfelt.

The band still has its own unique take on synth pop – often wrongly considered by outsiders as a cold and distant genre – thanks to singer Andy Bell's vocal range being one of the widest of all existing pop artists, and his live performances completely irresistible in their flamboyance. Vince Clarke's skills as a programmer of analogue and modular synthesizers is unparalleled. He effortlessly conjures up warm-toned, catchy pop tunes, with countless little sounds and details hidden in background layers that are especially rewarding for the avid headphone listener.

Of course, I admit that Erasure's catalogue includes a few artistic misfires along the way, such as an album consisting solely of cover versions and an acoustic collection, the release of which cannot really be justified in any way. They most probably lost even the last few casual listeners at that stage, which is a shame, because even after four UK number one albums from the band's golden period of 1987 to1994, Vince and Andy's hit factory has produced numerous perfect electronic pop gems. For example these, to mention a few: Fingers and Thumbs , In My Arms , Reason , There'll Be No Tomorrow and Die 4 Love .

Everyone needs something to rely on

In pop record reviews, an often repeated absurd claim places critique on groups that haven't succeeded in renewing themselves. Personally, I expect my favourites not to attempt constant renewal. If I fall in love with a band for its unique sound, why would I want it to go find itself on an island retreat, grow dreadlocks and pose for monochrome PR shots in the desert under a baobab tree?

I feel a strong kindred spirit with Erasure in that I also like to stick to proven and customary ways of doing things, I don't take unnecessary risks or try to transform into an extroverted do-it-yourself alpha male who knows all there is to know about iron fitting plinths, can cave dive without any scuba gear, and charm the pants off people with witty banter at dinner parties. That's why it's pointless to tell me how good it would be to develop myself by stepping into my "discomfort zone" or by thinking "outside the box".

Similar to the way that younger generations cannot appreciate the thin veil of extra dry "humour" encasing the malice and condescension of a frustrated middle-aged man, endlessly regretting his unmade life choices, neither will The Neon succeed in converting many new fans. The old fan base – and at least the British critics – have been almost unanimously delighted in their response. Vince started the album by going back to the analogue synths used in Erasure's early days, such as Pro-One, Sequential Circuits and Moog, and the warm sound they create really shines through. The sounds include recognisable best-of highlights from the band's previous albums, which makes the general soundscape simultaneously both familiar and amazingly modern. Of course, the reason it feels up-to-date is because so many contemporary artists seek inspiration from the iconic works of the electro pioneers of the 80s.

The Neon features an exhilarating amount of catchy hooks and instrumental interludes. Vince has clearly been in the perfect frame of mind to once again create a magnificent collection of bubbling melodies. Andy serves up the usual strong vocal parts for romantic backdrops, even if some of the lyrics admittedly cross the line into banality. This is the case especially with the opening track and first single Hey Now, which seemed a bit bland at first listen, but gets better as it goes on, and the locomotive-like pounding beat finally wins you over.

From then on, the record rolls onwards completely irresistibly, much like in Erasure's heyday. Nerves of Steel, progressing with the power of a stripped back cool background and riff, rises to a completely different level thanks to Andy's soulful voice. The following Fallen Angel falls in the most traditional synthpop section, down to the chorus and chord progression, but manages to inject some intrigue into its updated sounds. No Point in Tripping, on the other hand, offers a slightly more club-like atmosphere and a less obvious song structure with a fun interlude.

Shot A Satellite is my favourite track – a stylish entity where everything works and has its place, and which is wonderfully old-fashioned and futuristic at the same time. Tower of Love, opening the second half of the album, is a slightly darker piece with a Depeche-like chord pattern and a great outro with bonus riffs, which you could very well imagine sung by Alison Moyet on Yazoo's debut album. Diamond Lies, in turn, offers perhaps the album's best chorus and finest background sounds. New Horizons is again a typical Erasure slow atmospheric piece, which is melodically beautiful, but could have done with a little more solid background.

A happy surprise has been left for the penultimate song. Careful What I Try to Do is a track that no one but Erasure could deliver so touchingly. A seemingly very simple pop song that builds into more than the sum of its parts, in all its heartfelt innocence and thanks to Andy's words to his longtime partner. Kid You're Not Alone, the album's finale, is a beautiful ballad sung strongly in falsetto that casts faith in the future.

In my own Erasure ranking, The Neon – as an exceptionally uniform package with a clear vision – the album places easily among the band's top-5 releases, right after the classics. It's a life-affirming tribute to the healing power of pop and just what I was looking for after its somber and slow-paced predecessor. When considering my other all-time favourite groups, Pet Shop Boys is pretty much perfect in everything they do, Depeche Mode manages to unite different types of audiences and has rock credibility, New Order is more of a bloke and the guy's guy's choice, and OMD is Kraftwerk's puritan, serious heir. In comparison, Erasure is the funniest, most humane and warmest champion of electronic pop. And that's why they will always have a special place in my heart, whatever the detractors and naysayers might say.

Verdict: ****½


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