With Andy Bell‘s announcement that he is HIV positive just prior to the release of Erasure’s excellent Nightbird earlier this year, you might think that a solo effort following a few months later would be an equally quiet affair. But that’s not necessarily the case. While the songs on Electric Blue are lyric-driven and often reflective, the playful music and lurid overtones remain in tact. There are moments colored by Bell’s situation, but there is still plenty of innuendo flying around here!
Now this is fun: the voice of Erasure fronting Manhattan Clique’s beats. The results don’t fall far from the Vince Clarke tree, but listening to the disc you don’t get the feeling that sounding that different from a proper Erasure release was necessarily the intent anyway. Manhattan Clique has toured with Erasure, as well as Human League and OneTwo, a one-off between Claudia Brücken of Propaganda and Paul Humphreys of O.M.D. This amounts to Manhattan Clique’s Philip Larsen and Chris Smith being an off-shoot branch of the ‘80s synthpop family tree and puts them squarely in the middle of its revival.
After the minute-long “Intro” seems to cop the opening synth line of U2’s “Where the Streets have No Name”, you are treated to three of the best pop songs you’re likely to hear this year. The synth blends seamlessly into a Spanish guitar line that is a little startling, but it doesn’t feel out of place. On “Caught in a Spin” it quickly mixes with the expected electronic disco beats. Bell just sounds like he’s having a great time on this song, delivering lines like “You’re such a sweet boy / My fascination / Lie in the shade and do it” with both sincerity and dance floor flamboyancy.
The first single follows and any doubts about what’s in your player are laid to rest. Bell is in classic form on “Crazy”, and he tells you up front with this one that “my desire / Is running down a city street / Pulled me up to the wire / I’m driven by a heavy beat.” And fueling the pleasure-seeking is Larsen and Smith doing their best imitation of a cross between vintage Vince Clarke and late ‘90s Pet Shop Boys disco. This is music to move your ass to. It’s driving beats and echoing vocals propel the song in a way we haven’t heard on an Erasure record since “Rescue Me” on 1994’s “Erasure”.
As good as the preceding tracks are, it is “Love Oneself” that makes me completely giddy. Having the voices of two of my favorite ‘80s synthpop bands come together lives up to the hype, in the same way Electronic’s “Patience of a Saint” effectively brought together members of New Order, The Smiths, and Pet Shop Boys back in ‘91. Bell and Brücken shine in this thumping, life-affirming pop anthem while Larsen and Smith strike the perfect balance between atmospheric beats, dance floor syncopation, and echo effects. All pretense is set aside as Bell and Brücken deliver the refrain:
It’s a pleasure to be here
And an honour to meet you
We only have one life
This is not a rehearsal
Blink and it’s over
Life is a riot
We only have one life
This is not a rehearsal
That these two veterans have been doing this for 20 years and still sound this fresh is remarkable. And the fun they are having on “Delicious” is equally amusing. This second duet that shows up late on the album is an infidelity-fueled, messy divorce tale that takes Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” call-and-response to intoxicatingly fun, War of the Roses proportions.
While Bell’s voice shows its age on the title track, what starts with sparse blips and beeps builds into an ominous and dark electro-rocker. And on “Jealous”, egotism never sounded so sweet, as if by simply being honest about infidelity absolves any wrongdoing. Cockily, Bell then gives his lover permission to get angry, telling him: “I know if you were the one / Who was sleeping ‘round / I could not keep my feelings to myself / I’d be jealous as hell.” The song eventually dissolves into a distorted, stretched synth line and makes way for the table-turning “Shaking My Soul”, where Bell begs his lover to “Please stop your cheating” over a mix of gospel and vintage electronic beats.
This is a collection of lyric-heavy dance synthpop that overachieves and succeeds in its mingling of emotion and sexuality. It’s time to trade in the lime green tutu for some electric blue body paint and let the show begin!
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