You don’t make your music career last 30 years without doing a little bit of tweaking along the way. British synthpop duo Erasure are hardly the Beatles when it comes to pulling off an artistic overhaul, but they’ve managed to strike just the right balance between changing yet staying the same. This has especially been the case as of late. After some flirtations with experimentation that not every fan was on board with, Andy Bell and Vince Clarke have taken baby steps towards reclaiming the bright and breezy pop sound that made them so loved in the ’80s. Other People’s Songs, a covers album that was received with lukewarm reviews, served as a reset button in Erasure’s history. After that, they strove to dial their classic sound back up – Bell’s angelic voice, his sticky melodies and Clarke’s ability to make romantic discourse sound peppy.
The Violet Flame finds Erasure staying that course. The only difference is the writing process. In the past, Erasure formed the skeletons of their songs on either an acoustic guitar or a piano. From there, they went through the refinement phase in the studio with plenty of keyboard hardware and recording software. For The Violet Flame, Bell and Clarke skipped the skeletal step and went straight to the hardware/software. All told, by the time it hits our ears, it still sounds like Erasure. It was likely meant to be a writing challenge for Bell and Clarke presented to themselves rather than a bold new way to make music. Besides, there’s no point in arguing with the results.
The Violet Flame is pure sugary pop, full all the bounce and sway that each Erasure release promises. It’s not likely that devotees will hoist it to the pedestal reserved for their favorite album, but none of them will be muttering “man, I miss the days of [insert name of your favorite Erasure album here]” either.
According to singer Andy Bell, Vince Clarke was hesitant to write a whole album from the synthesizers up since he believes that each song needs a strong melody. But Bell came through in that department. All ten songs from The Violet Flame have the potential to become trapped in your head, even the slower numbers. He also came through in the vocal department – though, when was he ever rusty in that department? His voice remains as pure now as it was during Erasure’s commercial peak. Lyrically, he’s still disappointed in his lovers while managing to enjoy his life in spite of it all.
The album is not that long – 37 minutes – but it manages to give itself enough room to toggle between the driving dance numbers and their more easy-going but still upbeat cousins. The album ends with one of the latter, “Stayed a Little Late Tonight”, where Bell lobs an “OTT” label at his beloved only to have “OCD” thrown right back at him. Another one of these light and windy dance tracks, “Under the Wave” uses water as a metaphor for someone who is way out of their romantic comfort zone: “I don’t know what to do / I don’t know what to say / I am out of my depth / I go under again”. In real life, that can be terrifying. In Bell’s throat, it’s no big deal, as if he were just in the middle of daydreaming.
These brisk tracks are all over The Violet Flame. That’s how it gets its start, within the first four songs. The faux-menace of “Dead of Night” paves the way for the simple sunrays of the single “Elevation”. “No more hiding, love is elevating love / Your light rising, love is elevating love”. I’m not sure what that means, but it sounds positive. Speaking of looking on the bright side, the chorus of the following track finds Bell proclaiming skyward, “You are the reason I live / You are the reason that I forgive”. The two songs that dial back the dance rush are “Be the One” and “Smoke and Mirrors”. The former is one of Erasure’s obligatory ballads about universality or something like that. There’s no reinvention here, just a moment to slow down so that the Bell and his companion can “walk to the end of time”.
“Smoke and Mirrors”, however, is a whole different animal. Here is Erasure in their most minor of minor keys. “My every wish was your command” sighs Bell above a bed of music that happens to be hiding more than just a few minutes. At the 1:46 mark, Vince Clarke’s sequence takes U-turn back to Bilingual-era Pet Shop Boys. And no, not the sunny side of Bilingual. With all this simmering and burbling, it’s kind of a small surprise that “Smoke and Mirrors” never erupts.
The Violet Flame isn’t as short as Tomorrow’s World, but it still wraps up before you realize it. Andy Bell and Vince Clarke mince nothing in delivering a brand of music for which they are so well-known. “Make your own paradise” goes the end of the chorus to “Paradise”, a song which Bell identifies as his opportunity to channel Donna Summer. In other words, quit wasting time and get happy. No one is going to make paradise for you, so you best just do it yourself. But Erasure have cut yet another little slice of paradise for their fans, as if they were rewarding them for sticking it out this long with them. Innovation is all well and good, but can we get an occasional ‘bravo’ for consistency over here?