(#400: 28 October 1989, 2 weeks)
Track listing: Piano Song – Instrumental/Blue Savannah/Drama!/How Many Times?/Star/La Gloria/You Surround Me/Brother And Sister/2,000 Miles/Crown Of Thorns/Piano Song
Another landmark TPL number, and maybe it is time to pause and take stock of where the eighties, as this tale knows it, are going. Mention has previously been made of things going full circle and back to 1980, and it has to be said that, as in that year, many of its number one albums sound like the last album that will ever be made, although the overriding concern is perhaps not so much apocalypse as the multiple problems of relationships, and if and how man and woman connect.
Time, however, and as also mentioned before, is quickly running out. In the big albums of this period there is a very real sense of the last chance saloon, the final opportunity to have a say before a New Age, of whatever stripe, comes to pass, and Erasure are no exception.
I have no idea who or what inspired the title Wild! – unless it’s a sneaky reference to Oscar – but the fourth Erasure album is a dramatic improvement on their third, far more focused, catchier/more singable, more poignant and more downright fun to listen to.
It begins, unsettlingly, with a slow, standard piano sequence which is soon invaded by odd tonalities (a clear pointer to future voices like Plone and Plaid). This in turn fades out – we’ll get back to it later – in order to usher in “Blue Savannah,” always one of my absolute favourite Erasure songs, its desert romance fantasy underscored by that autumnal air (the way voices and sounds echo back on each other) which I always find attractive in pop. With its “Sealand” synthesisers and piano cascades, the song is rather like a cross between early OMD and Michel Polnareff and I wish Elvis had lived to cover it (even if to slow it down to “Beyond The Reef” speed). The unresolved harmonies which take the song out (the repeated “to you only”s) are achingly moving.
But Erasure can be as joyfully bitchy as they are affecting. “Drama!” is terrific accusatory pop with great gusty yells of “GUILTY!” courtesy of the Jesus and Mary Chain, who were in the adjoining studio working on Automatic (and TPL has perhaps undervalued guest stars on songs; did you know that Peter Frampton plays lead guitar on Frankie Valli’s “Grease” or that Mark Knopfler appears on “She Means Nothing To Me”?). Likewise, “Brother And Sister” and “2,000 Miles” are enjoyable romps through family and relationship traumas.
When they slow down, Andy Bell’s deep register can sound surprisingly (or not so surprisingly) like David Sylvian, for example on “How Many Times?,” although this song also carries a distinctly Bryan Ferry-ish air of affluent melancholy (“Will I regret the chances taken?/Why do I end up always the one who is mistaken?”), or on the slowly-smouldering “You Surround Me.”
In contrast, “Star” is a cheery thrust through impending apocalypse and religious hucksters on TV. The cod-flamenco of “La Gloria” (possibly with Ms Estefan in mind?) also sounds like it was a riot to make. Its overall good humour is one of the things which makes Wild! immeasurably better than The Seeds Of Love; you do feel that this is basically Vince and Andy all the way through, just the two of them, bouncing ideas off each other, and that no celebrity guests or florid arrangements are required.
Then, however, we arrive at the two closing songs, and “Crown Of Thorns” is a scathing denunciation of somebody we can only assume is Thatcher (“Light in her eyes pours black on their lives,” “Her name burned into his brow/Scorn in her eyes/Her back to the cries”) and how “old England” is being allowed to bleed to death. This is the late eighties, there is a big disease with a little name; it does not take much guesswork to identify the source of the duo’s rage.
The closing song I will return to in good time, but it did occur to me that if we are to take this record into account – and given that those cries of “GUILTY!” echo the ones in “Waking The Witch” - we must also try to pair it with the record that it kept at number two:
On balance it is easy to see why the Erasure album prevailed; they had an absolutely devoted and loyal hardcore fanbase and Mute’s promotional department were completely on the ball (perhaps learning from Rough Trade’s mistakes with The Smiths). But Wild! is a far more assimilable and easily digestible record than The Sensual World. Those in search of a second Hounds Of Love were always going to be disappointed; this has no easily discernible running storyline and no catchy “Running Up That Hill” equivalent to hang onto as a hook. The nearest thing to the latter is the title song, but great as it is, it was never going to be a number one.
The strange thing about the song “The Sensual World” is that, rather like another number one album from the other end of 1989, it is a marked contrast to the songs which follow it; or they may be one long, aching song divided into nine or ten parts. Here Bush finds sexual happiness and fulfilment, but is this really happening or is she merely experiencing it in the course of reading Ulysses?
The album initially does not appear to answer that question readily. Instead it explores different dimensions of relationships between man and woman, whether it be personal break-up (“Love And Anger”) or watching what her parents are doing (“Between A Man And A Woman”) and it would appear that the artist is experiencing extreme difficulty relating to any of it.
This may in great part be down to residual fear; and so “The Fog” may be the record’s key song, with her father (played by her father himself – Bush was now thirty) tentatively encouraging her to swim. But she is afraid to let go, and this fear emerges again when faced with its antithesis, the reckless woman ready to tie a firework and fire herself off Waterloo Bridge in “Rocket’s Tail.” Fear of commitment, fear of being required to formulate herself as a unique individual – who knows, but elsewhere there are implanted memories of dancing, or not dancing, with Hitler (“Heads We’re Dancing”), or what sounds like Gable in Gone With The Wind, with the burning cornfields and so forth (“Never Be Mine”). On the latter song she makes her desire explicit – “I want you as the dream,” she sings, “not the reality,” possibly knowing that the real Clark Gable would simply have disappointed her.
But on “Deeper Understanding” she falls in love with her computer, at the expense of parental care. None of this is making her complete as a person, and I note her attachment to “the thrill and the hurting” in “Never Be Mine.” Then again, when she partially re-recorded four of these songs for 2011’s Director’s Cut, who should be the voice of the computer but her not-yet-born son Albert.
Like The Seeds Of Love, one does feel that the ornateness gets in the way of expressing something very basic. All sorts of then-modish liberal arts types pop up throughout the record, including Nigel Kennedy, Mick Karn, Michael Nyman, Alan Stivell and Eberhard Weber, as well as the more expected David Gilmour. For me, however, only the Trio Bulgarka, who appear on three songs, make the transition from look-at-my-cool-record-collection status; frequently they argue with and sometimes overpower the singer, and at the horrifically jubilant climax of “Rocket’s Tail” they join in with the yells of “KICK IT! KICK IT!” (hinting at “Kick It In,” and yes, John Giblin is duly present on bass).
And then there is “This Woman’s Work,” which is simply Kate, her multiple voices and piano, and Michael Kamen’s patient and sympathetic strings. It is always helpful to remember that this was originally written for the 1988 film She’s Having A Baby, starring Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth McGovern, and plays over its most heart-rending sequence. Because this song is not at root about some residual imbalance between expectations and reality; it is actually the bookend song to “Breathing” since once again she is about to give birth and she is encouraging the new to be born (“I know you have a little life in you left”). At the same time, however, she cannot help but recall her life until now with its trail of unsaid things and undone deeds and roads never taken (because what is to become of the father? There are so many other bass players on this record, and he himself is present, if not all the time). Part of her wants that tentative child in her back, while the other is trying to break through physical and emotional pain. The strings rise to crescendo, the multiple Bushes howl their way towards a scream, and then a final, ambiguous whisper: “Just make it go away, now.”
It is a magnificent performance and also how the record was supposed to end. Both CD and cassette editions carried an eleventh song, the indecisive happy ending of “Walk Straight Down The Middle,” but if we are to twin this record with the one by Erasure, then we have to admit that the common denominator is indeed love and anger; both the love of anger and the process of being angry at love.
And so it is back to “Piano Song,” a far from straightforward but almost as moving an album closer. Bell sings it as though counting down his final seconds. He is sitting alone, somewhere, getting older, being talked to like a child (tellingly the song’s opening line is “Never get angry at the stupid people”) but knows that his time is running out. He cannot quite recall “the consciousness of me and you.” He stares at the window and sees only his own face, his own eyes. “What hurts me most,” he sings or murmurs repeatedly, “I’ll never see your eyes again.” His lover’s eyes, or his own eyes? He is dying (“The harder it gets,” “Though I get weary”) but the cause of his dying is fairly easily spelled out (“My body belies me, I’m of fertile mind”). Before the song ends, his mind is starting to atomise – “I try to forget…I’ll never see your eyes again…I can’t recollect…” This song stares the elephant in the 1989 living room right in its eye.
And we have not even reached the terminal beach of 1989. Yet.
Next: The end of the line.