Erasure – The Innocents 21st Anniversary Review

Posted December 2, 2009 in

Most people that know my musical taste know that I’m a huge Erasure fan.  In fact, I would say it is an honest assessment of my fandom to state that Erasure is probably my favorite band of all time.   They certainly have the distinction of being my most collected band: not only do they reside as the group with the most CDs in my collection, but also the most vinyl, posters, boxes/sets and promos.  Back in the day, I would travel (sometimes far) to pick up their latest single (usually on vinyl) and the anticipation of getting it home and on my stereo was always a tantalizing prospect: studying the great cover art and often memorizing the credits until I could give it my very first proper listen. That actually hasn’t changed much all these years later, even if the formats have and some of those great record stores I frequented are now gone.  Having confessed this, I’m now going to tell you another secret: The Innocents (Vince Clarke and Andy Bell’s classic third album) was the actual catalyst that launched my lifelong mega-devotion.  My little sister gave me the gift that has kept on giving (and on cassette tape no less) for my 20th birhday.  Just one listen and I was smitten.

Of course I had heard Erasure on the local radio and knew a few of their songs (like “Sometimes,” “Oh L’Amour” and especially their first bonafide US hit single, “Chains Of Love”) but hadn’t joined the fold yet.  It wasn’t hard to fall in love with the album, as it contained not only three huge UK singles (the above mentioned “Chains,” “Ship Of Fools,” and a little anthem called “A Little Respect”) but some equally great album tracks.  I soon backtracked through their earlier releases, and while not complete, I started to have a nice collection of their work.  In other words, the magnificent obsession had begun.

The Innocents is actually the first Erasure long-player proper to get the full remaster treatment.  Aside from four chronological singles boxed sets and this year’s fantastic Total Pop! hits collection, this seems surprising, especially after comparing the sound of the original CDs to the remastered ones—it is literally night and day.  I remember doing this when the first two boxed singles sets, entitled simply Singles Box Set 1 and 2, arrived in 1999.  I heard things, mostly through headphones, that I hadn’t noticed on the original records.  There was a stunning and detectable difference immediately, which isn’t always the case with “remastered” CDs I’ve purchased through the years.  I’ve argued with various friends about whether or not remastered albums sound any better or different and if they justify repurchasing something one already owns.

To me remastering seems to be a natural progression as modern technology improves upon itself.  It appears inevitable that a lot of albums released on CD say ten or more years ago have the potential of simply sounding better now.  That isn’t to say that record companies always do this right—sometimes they don’t, especially if they haven’t used the original master tapes for example.  For this release I actually made a playlist in iTunes and put all the tracks from my original CD and interspersed them with the same tracks from the new 2009 CD and then compared them.  So, “A Little Respect” 1988 version, then “A Little Respect” 2009 version, etc.  It was astonishing to hear the difference and clarity in the newer release.

And so with Erasure and their career-long label, Mute, the real question isn’t over how the remastered sound will be (since they’ve repeatedly proven themselves in this arena) but rather how does the material stand up?  Especially twenty-one years after it was originally released? The answer is: remarkably well.  The Innocents was Erasure’s true first US hit, not to mention their first UK number one album, remarkably hitting that spot twice: first in April 1988 upon its release and then again in January 1989.  Clarke has said that by this album he and Bell were true musical partners, in terms of both the writing and recording of the material.  Demoed mainly on guitar and piano (like most of their songs are still done to this day) at Clarke’s house, the album was recorded in London.  Working with the great Stephen Hague (Pet Shop Boys, New Order, OMD) as producer, The Innocents sounds different than their prior two releases.  Certainly there is a new maturity to the songs, but there is also something different in the execution, and credit Hague for bringing out the best elements of this duo’s strengths: Clarke’s synth wizardry and Bell’s gorgeous, soulful voice in new ways.

It also doesn’t hurt that they happen to write highly catchy, short pop songs.  In fact, none of the tracks on this album clock in at more than 4 minutes in length.  Hague enhances a few songs with female backing singers to great effect and the addition of a horn section (via The Kickhorns) may have been trendy in the late 80s when this album was made, but they still sound fresh and exciting on the great “Heart Of Stone.”  The track order (credited to Bell) flows very nicely, with one hit leading into the other.  The still amazing “Phantom Bride” was considered for a possible fourth single and was recently released with updated mixes of several tracks as a UK-only (so far) EP.  It is definitely worth tracking this import EP down. I may be a tad biased but there really isn’t a bad track on The Innocents. “Yahoo!,” “Imagination,” “Witch In The Ditch” and especially “Weight Of The World” have great, sing-along choruses.  As ever, the openly-out role model Bell’s lyrics are particularly inspiring on the latter two tracks.

Even the original album’s two bonus tracks, “When I Needed You” and especially their great cover of “River Deep Mountain High” are fantastic.  The album is being released in two digital versions in the US (as the single remastered disc and as an iTunes exclusive version) and in physical form as the even better deluxe double CD/single DVD version.  In addition to b-sides and assorted remastered mixes, the second disc contains remixes of “Chains Of Love” and “A Little Respect” from the original US vinyl 12” singles, that have never been on CD before.  There are also four great live tracks, including “Phantom Bride” and “Heart Of Stone.”  

The other prize in this package is the DVD.  Not only does it feature the full-length Innocents concert video, but promotional videos of the three singles, two live TV appearances and a 35 minute BBC documentary.  I have a well-loved VHS copy of the concert that the same sweet little sister of mine purchased during a trip to Ireland, and had transferred from PAL to NTSC video all those years ago, but because of a poor transfer it looks like it has strobe lights running throughout it and is not recommended for epileptics.  So not only has Mute remastered the whole thing, it is making its US debut (and on DVD to boot) for the first time.  But that’s not all, as they’ve added two additional tracks cut from the original video: their always great ABBA cover of “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” and “Witch In The Ditch.”  What is so memorable about this video is that Bell is honing more of his wonderfully outrageous stage persona and Erasure fans are introduced to the great backing vocalists the Chalmers sisters for the first time.  And what about musical maestro Clarke?   Well, like in most Erasure concerts, he keeps mainly to himself.  As if all that weren’t enough, the real bonus of the DVD is the inclusion of the full concert (including the previously unreleased tracks) in a digital MP3 format.  It is the creme da le creme in an already generous package.

Twenty-one years after its release, one of Vince Clarke and Andy Bell’s greatest albums has definitely stood the test of time.  Here’s to hoping Mute remasters the rest of their great back catalog in such a manner. Happy 21st Birthday, The Innocents!

The remastered version of The Innocents will be released in the US on Tuesday, December 8th on Mute.