After a long period of excursions into experimental territory, Andy Bell and Vince Clarke -- the duo that make Erasure -- returned to the bouncy synth-pop confections that they were known for on 2000's Loveboat. The album was only issued in the UK, however, a problem that has been rectified by this new US issue on Mute Records.
Fans who haven't paid attention to Erasure's career since 1990 or so -- and this likely applies to most -- may be somewhat shocked by the music on Loveboat, even as it is being billed as a "return to form". Loveboat is composed primarily of dreamy soundscapes rather than sprightly, uptempo, and catchy dance tracks, and lacks much of the immediacy that made the duo's late '80s work so durable. Clarke and Bell don't sound behind the times -- Loveboat sounds entirely at home in 2000, not 1990 -- but they do sound somewhat bored, finding a gimmick (in this instance dreamy and dubby, bass-heavy beats with gently strummed acoustic guitars layered over the top) and running with it for the course of the entire album. This might not be so bad were it not for the fact that the duo failed to bring any great songs along -- the single (and most accessible cut) "Freedom" may have become a hit in the UK, and it is pretty catchy, but its irritating, gospel-inflected backing vocals make it sound too drippy, even if musically it works fairly well.
"Freedom" sets the pace for most of the disc, where some merely okay songs ("Crying in the Rain", "Where in the World") are balanced next to sub-par material (the sing-songy "Love Is the Rage") and a lot of pretty but easily forgettable dubby filler. The spacious material that forms the bulk of the record may be its selling point -- maybe while Erasure have foregone many of the hooks of their past, they've focused on making pretty soundscapes indebted ever-so-slightly to Brian Eno or even Autechre, albeit with a fuzzy, warm tone. And no one will fault Andy Bell's vocals -- he is in fine voice, turning out a lyrical performance that's as emotional and bold as ever. But as pretty as most of this is, it's nearly impossible to recall any of the individual tracks after it's done playing. Loveboat feels like background music for Sunday mornings rather than dance music for Saturday nights -- and maybe this was the intention -- but it lacks the cool and intriguing twists that mark the best coffee-and-martini-fueled chillout albums. Most of it passes by inoffensively -- in a bad way.
Fans of synth-pop acts like Erasure -- it's okay to admit to liking this stuff nowadays, and I do -- might find something to like, but there are almost a dozen other Erasure albums that they could pick up first, and most of them are frankly better than this. Erasure are an extremely talented and under-appreciated duo, but anyone who gets back on the train now will likely be perplexed by this pretty but unfocused work.
So Loveboat is one for the fans, and the fans are the ones who will still buy Erasure albums in 2003, so that's fair enough. But wouldn't the fans already own this now-3-year-old album on import? Die-hards wouldn't mind swallowing an extra buck or two to get it, so one has to wonder why Mute bothered to push a disc that's past its commercial prime and without any obvious singles in a marketplace where Erasure are already (unfairly) somewhat forgotten.