By David Lichfield
With their insanely brilliant run of classic pop singles released between 1985 and 1992, all collected on their classic compilation Pop! The First Twenty Hits, Erasure were once one of my favourite acts. Having lost touch with them sometime around 1997, after their singles became outstandingly ordinary, it’s odd to reflect how the prospect of a whole new, modern-sounding album by the synth-pop duo could leave me feeling so distant. After ten years of covers albums, acoustic albums, another omission-heavy hits album and an updated version of the afore-mentioned singles collection (I remember the drop in quality heading into the middle of the second disc being horrific) and less-than-glowing reviews of studio albums, can an Erasure album have any relevance to 2011?
Enlisting Frankmusik on production duties, comparisons to the last Xenomania-produced Pet Shop Boys album immediately spring to mind. That album, though patchy in places, had a contemporary crispness to it, and though the songwriting was not consistent to a 1980s standard, it contained two or three tracks that sat happily alongside some of their best material. Meanwhile, Depeche Mode have continued to release extremely strong material over this period, whilst other contemporaries such as The Human League have somehow slipped to the Here and Now circuit.
The first thing to note is the change in Andy Bell’s voice. Not only is it almost drowned in stone-cold autotune throughout, but there’s a certain hoarseness to it that doesn’t sit well, which should come as a shock to anyone unfamiliar with their recent work. Opener ‘Be With You’, like much of the album, deals with a sense of unrequited love and loneliness. It employs an instantly memorable melody and classic pop chord sequence, but its exploration of these themes seems bland and simplistic.
Tomorrow’s World is a big, expensive-sounding album, and the glossy stamp of mixer Rob Orton (Lady Gaga, Kelis, Pixie Lott) is prominent, but the persistent, thumping club-friendly rhythms cannot mask the unadventurous songwriting and one-dimensional lyrics. It’s an album coloured with hunger, like a plea for significance long after the wider world stopped listening, but the whole affair seems contrived in places, and if the lyrics are predictable and generic, then there’s really little emotional potency.
Where the songs do hit home, it’s because the melodies are reminiscent of superior songs. Album highlight ‘A Whole Lotta Love Run Riot’ has a strong chorus, which appears to be half-inched from ‘Everytime We Touch’ by Cascada – hardly a credible influence, but not an entirely awful song, plus this is the level of brash cheesiness we’re dealing with here. Its trance-esque breakdown and trademark bleeps (courtesy of Vince Clarke’s warm, analogue synths) make for a rather convincing track, and potentially a far better lead single than forgettable, mid-tempo ballad ‘Where I Start To (Break It All Down)’. ‘I Lose Myself’ is almost classic Erasure, and a none-too distant cousin of ‘Who Needs Love Like That’, but again, only treads ground broken over two decades ago. ‘What Will You Say When I’m Gone’ is engaging in ballad terms, and contains a blissful concoction of pads and choppy trance synths, but there’s so little subtlety over the course of the nine tracks that Tomorrow’s World is sonically overwhelming, and not a little flat.
The more the album aims for euphoria, the emptier it feels, leading to an album that does sound fresh, but can’t carry insubstantial songs, making the whole proposition sound a tad desperate. ‘Then I Go Twisting’, the penultimate track, talks of ‘monophonic sounds’, but by this point the four-to-the-floor beats have become something of a musical bugbear themselves, not to mention the vague lyrics (‘Modern life’s so dull, more of the same old stuff, I don’t want to let you down’). They’ve never been particularly cryptic or leftfield lyrically, but there’s a bland laziness to the words that means the songs lack character, and I definitely don’t remember that being the case before.
In the race to belong in 2011, they seem to only fleetingly sound like Erasure. Also, the lack of melodic surprise and drama offered by Tomorrow’s World is something I’d never associated with their work. They set themselves a world-class standard in their early years, but it’s almost unfathomable how empty this album feels. I wanted to like it so much, but I see no real appeal outside of their remaining small, but hardcore fanbase.