can hope, I can pray / Until you find me / Someday."
There is no joy without sadness in synthpop—but if Depeche Mode are the Gothic heart of darkness and the Pet Shop Boys the wry essence of bittersweet self-reflection, Erasure represent the unadulterated spirit of the longing, lovelorn poet. If that's too much for you to choke down, then consider them as the essence of beauty without a shred of self-consciousness or irony. When Andy Bell sings a line like "why is love so precious and so cruel," you can be sure he means every wistful inch of it. Not that their music is without humor: it has strong elements of camp and sardonic wit, and you know that as earnest as Bell and partner (in the musical sense, people) Vince Clarke are, they also get the joke.
I've come to realize as I listened to both this new album and their previous ones (especially near-flawless singles collection Pop!) that Erasure have been given short shrift by critics, myself included. Mark Prendergast in particular, in his rather tedious The Ambient Century, aroused my ire when he referred to them as "moppets" every fifteen pages, like they were a pair of clowns to be disdained and mocked. Disregarding even the importance of Clarke's groundbreaking synth work with Depeche Mode and Yazoo, Erasure alone have been responsible for some of the most achingly beautiful pop music of the last twenty years—songs that diagram the condition of the heart with perfect attention to detail, that nail the delicious tension in your chest when you fall madly for someone as well as the queasy sensation arising when you fall back out of love.
Too many of their songs are about love, you say? You're wrong: every Erasure song is about love, from the four-minute symphonies of each new single to the tender chamber-pop of their new album. You want something more gritty, more real, you say? If there's anything more real than love I want no part of it. Their music is cheesy, you say? Shit, you could spread the ambience on a cracker. And as we continue to live out the groaningly boring woe-is-me / I-hate-everything aesthetic of the '90's in so much pop music, I could well suffer a few more Erasures and a few less Green Days. In the end, you can say what you will, but no one else in the pop game creates songs that make you want everything that you touch to turn into feathers.
For Union Street, our boys have taken a number of album tracks (look in vain for "Oh L'Amour," "Blue Savannah," "Stop!," or "Chains of Love" here, they get nowhere near a hit) and made an ostensibly fans-only album of all-acoustic reworks. The good news for both devotees and neophytes is that the setting of these songs does nothing to diminish their gracefulness. In fact, Andy Bell's voice is often allowed a more central stage here, and if he doesn't have one of the nicest set of lungs in pop then I've no business writing another word. The only bad news is that the nakedness of these arrangements lays bare the lynchpin of Erasure's appeal—the dramatic, intrusive nature of their strident major chords and arching vocals is on full display, and I doubt that the end result is one that a lot of coffee shops will be putting on in between Norah Jones and Allison Krauss.
More's the pity—the accompaniment here is tasteful and understated, with guest guitarist Steve Walsh lending the pair some lush, gorgeous fingerpicking. That this stripped-down approach lends itself to such an involving result is a testament to the strength of the melodies crafted by Vince Clarke and the aforementioned loveliness of Andy Bell's voice. A collection of album tracks and b-sides hardly has the right to be this consistently tuneful, but the songs shine in their new settings. The redrafting of "Alien" as a bluegrass-tinged, yearning ode to youth; the positivism of "Home" channeled into a rich, steel guitar-draped paean of alternating shades of dark and light; the choral massage of the brilliant version of "Rock Me Gently"; all bring a sense of surprise, a freshness that rarely comes to light when groups revisit their back catalog.
Erasure have taken a chance with Union Street, but then their continued insistence on making music this purely honest, tender and revealing is in itself taking chances in the face of hipster irony and designer miserablism. No doubt their fanbase will appreciate the evident amount of love put into this release, and no doubt a larger success will continue to elude them. What should not continue, however, is the critical mistreatment of one of the most dedicated, unwavering groups delivering pure pop satisfaction with a minimum of self-indulgence and trendiness. We could all stand to learn a lesson from the loyalty to one's own vision that Erasure represent in the face of a world largely bent on indifference—an indifference that chafes particularly as we desperately need voices like these in such trying, callous times.