It is a curious thing when a band exists for almost twenty years. Often a sound that was once vital and unique becomes compromised as the players age, and new trends and styles emerge which the musicians have to either adopt, ignore, or incorporate. Erasure, which falls into the above category, is faced with the dilemma of releasing an album amongst contemporaries who are playing a retro/kitsch version of the same music that made Vince Clarke and Andy Bell’s synthpop popular fifteen years ago. What does a group do in that situation? If you’re Erasure, whose recent releases were decidedly ignored by the charts, you release an album of covers that some of your favorite pop songs from the past fifty or so years and call it, candidly enough, Other People’s Songs.
Erasure knows the potential of success in cover songs. Their 1992 EP Abba-esque is their most popular release, and gave them their only number one single. With Other People’s Songs it seems they are trying to replicate that former success; offering synthpop versions of recognizable and much-loved classics and setting out to prove that great songwriting transcends genre barriers. Unfortunately, for the most part the re-interpretations of the chosen songs sound stale, and serve not only to remind listeners of the superiority of the original versions, but also that Erasure’s sound and production was never that spectacular in the first place.
The selections on Other People’s Songs are a healthy mix of rock and roll, soul, folk, and new wave, covering Buddy Holly, Elvis, The Righteous Brothers, and Peter Gabriel, among others. Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill,” the album opener and the first single, is an uninspired reworking of the original, and contains almost none of its charm. From there, the album can only improve. And it does … slightly.
Some tracks, such as “Everyone’s Got to Learn Sometime” and “Come Up and See Me,” are catchy and whimsical, a quality which Bell’s high pitched voice seems to command. But most of the selections don’t stand up to the originals or offer anything new. The album’s best track is “Ebb Tide,” a disco-fied and lighthearted interpretation of the old Righteous Brothers tune.
The most incongruous choice is The Buggles’ infamous “Video Killed the Radio Star,” whose success paved the way for most of the New Romantic/MTV-era one hit wonders whom Erasure book-ended. As the album closer, the song acts as an oddly touching and sad admittance of defeat. Erasure, synthpop stars who never really gained the popularity of their peers, and who arrived too late in the quickly-tiring New Romantic scene, are reduced to covering one of the genre’s silliest and most sadly ironic songs. What makes cover songs, let alone entire albums, worthwhile is when a band offers a new take on an old song. The fact that Erasure’s 2003 cover version of the song that launched MTV sounds nearly identical to the original is a sad statement of just of how little the duo has to offer.