It’s a tricky business, crafting pop music. There isn’t a recipe. If there were, Top 40 radio would be a garden of endless delights as opposed to the used-condom depository it currently is. Furthermore, the differences between delectable confections and insipid treacle can be frighteningly subtle. Therefore, those who dare to fly the pop flag tend to hedge their bets. They employ hyphens, offering listeners pop-punk, indie-pop or other hy-brids that flirt with the pop aesthetic without committing fully to it. Or they dress pop up as retro-kitch or coat it with a thick layer of irony. When all else fails, you can graft mediocre pop onto dancing haircuts or a great pair of tits. All of this so that if the music fails to achieve pop perfection, it may at least be perceived as succeeding as something else.
Then there are groups like Erasure. The members of Erasure don’t hedge their bets. They offer pop music in its purist form — pop that has no aspirations to be anything other than pop. This is an act of considerable bravery, especially for a pair of balding, middle-aged white guys. This courage carries the duo on Light at the End of the World, Erasure’s thirteenth studio album.
If you’ve heard anything the group has done in the last two decades, you know exactly what to expect from an Erasure record: Andy Bell’s disco-diva/blue-eyed-soul vocals plus Vince Clarke’s artful synth squiggles. They haven’t updated their sound. This isn’t electro-clash or electro-crass or whatever the hell they’re calling it now. The album is old-school synth-pop. In an age when pop radio embraces macho-compressed minimalism, Clarke maintains a lusher approach. His synth arrangements are deceptively complex, with subtle embellishments that reveal themselves after multiple listens. Bell’s lyrics generally invoke classic pop-song archetypes: pleasingly melodramatic tales of love, lost love, an so forth. One exception is “Storm in a Teacup,” an emotional account of an adolescent escaping a dysfunctional family.
When it all comes together, as it does on the amazing singles “I Could Fall in Love with You” and “Sunday Girl,” the effect is intoxicating. Music like this makes you happy to be alive. When it doesn’t come together, as on “How My Eyes Adore You” (which features a percussion sound that reminds me of post-nasal drip), the result isn’t unpleasant so much as tedious. And in pop, tedium is unforgivable.
Cynics might point out that this sort of music has been done before. They’re right. But so what? There’s a sense in which Clarke and Erasure invented this wheel, and it would be rather boorish to demand they reinvent the damn thing twenty years later. Light at the End of the World hits more than it misses, and it adds a few new verses to Erasure’s existing bible of classic synth-pop.