ERASURE - THE NEON
“The neon is a place, but not a specific place. It’s a place that lives in the imagination, that we – you and me – put in the real world. It could be a night club, a shop, a city, a cafe, a country, a bedroom, a restaurant, any place at all.” It’s a place of possibility in warm, glowing light. This is music that takes you there.
When Andy Bell was growing up, he was fascinated with neon. “I’ve always loved it,” he begins, every syllable alive. “It ties in with my fancy of being from the fairground, the whole romance of being in a travelling show. It’s old-fashioned but still modern. It’s a beautiful light to be bathed in.”
Andy was in a loving, happy place when he headed to Brooklyn, New York, last summer, to see his old friend, Vince Clarke. Andy was living between London and Miami, blissfully happy with his husband, having fulfilment from other projects, like the fantastical Torsten albums and theatre productions. Vince was doing well too. Outside of Erasure, he’d collaborated with Paul Hartnoll of Orbital, remixed artists like Miss Kittin, Fujiya and Miyagi and James Yorkston, and embarked on a fortnightly radio programme, The Synthesizer Show, which had got him back into exploring new music. “But it’s always a real treat to see Andy,” he says, of the regular reunion they have every two years. “I always look forward to it. We never, ever get bored of each other.”
Vince had been burrowed away in his basement, surrounded by synths, working on tracks that he hoped would ignite Andy’s imagination. The duo had no big plan like they did for 2017’s slower, deliberately political album, World Be Gone; they just knew they wanted to make something “optimistic, more upfront”. Vince had been feeling drawn towards his older machines, some of which he’d had since their very early years together: “There’s a warmth to them. There’s also a real beauty in putting different analogue synthesisers together, too – a Pro-One, a Sequential Circuits, a Moog – they give this lovely sheen,” he explains. Andy loved the tracks Vince had made too. He started to improvise wordless melodies around them; they quickly moulded themselves into clear, glowing shapes. “Andy was really inspired this time,” Vince believes. “Our music is always a reflection of how we’re feeling. He was in a good place spiritually, and so was I – really good places in our minds. You can hear that.”
Back home, Andy felt his mind turning to the span of his life as he turned the sounds into lyrics. “I kept thinking how fortunate I was to be born in the early 1960s, to be there for so much of pop history. And to be in my teens and twenties in the 1980s – I felt really spoiled. Getting older, you realise art is only new for a certain period. How lucky I was to be there for so much of it.”
Andy kept thinking of bands he loved as a child, and others he loved in his twenties – as well as Erasure’s own late ‘80s flowering. “Our new songs started to have tastes of those times, or at least made me reminisce a bit,” Andy says. “Modern pop is created by boards of people now, and there aren’t as many home-made looks like there once were. These songs had a different essence or spirit about them – of what pop really should be.” It’s not about wallowing in nostalgia either. “That feeling wasn’t about harking back, really. It was about refreshing my love – hopefully our love – of great pop. I want kids now to hear these songs! I wanted to recharge that feeling that pop can come from anyone.”
From this spark The Neon arrived fully-formed, its synth lines warmly familiar but still futuristic. ‘Hey Now (Think I Got a Feeling)’ is the album’s luminous opener and first single, a beat bopping through its brain, a pill popping through its heart. Andy never realised that its lyrics would feel so potent today, about walking through the city, singing hallelujah, wishing for a lover’s touch. ‘Shot a Satellite’ launches off a bed of stuttering, percussive sci-fi synths.
In ‘Fallen Angel’, we’re taken from a classic, melancholic electronic Erasure hook, before being coaxed us towards giddy euphoria. We have to “ride on top of the roller coaster/Walk up the down escalator” and learn how to fly. In the fantasy world of ‘Tower of Love’, a friend is trapped in a loveless bond, waiting for princes to come, before we urge them to “see a crack of sunlight/ [and] run straight for the door”. In ‘Careful What I Try to Do’, a muse comes along “created new”, who “simply bought the best right out of me”. Life in all its guises and disguises shimmer in The Neon.
It also gleams in ‘Nerves of Steel’, one of the last songs Andy wrote, which makes him think of him and his husband, who he’s currently apart from because he’s stuck in the US. “It makes me think we can do anything together. It’s like we’re two little princes standing together on the planet, just me and him, no one else, thinking we can do anything.” The Neon reminds you of what is out there, and how together we will prevail.
Andy recorded his vocals last autumn in Atlanta, Georgia, at an analogue, old-fashioned joint with a huge mural of Greta Thunberg outside. Even though Vince’s tracks were all finished, he went down too: “For a laugh! It was great. I hadn’t been to a proper studio with a recording room for years. There was even someone making tea for you.” Andy drove there from Florida with his husband, and felt himself being transported back to the 1950s as they travelled, he says. “It was quite scary at parts – the messages on churches, the anti-abortion posters. But I kept remembering Rosie O’ Donnell saying that Erasure’s gigs are like non-religious church services – they still feel spiritual. I wanted the album to be about that feeling, that connection with the past and the future. I knew it had to be a celebration.”
The title of The Neon came late on, to Andy. He knew it was perfect instantly, he says: it summed up everything he wanted the album to convey. The album was mixed in London’s Bethnal Green in February, and the photography was shot in God’s Own Junkyard, up the train line in Walthamstow, an old warehouse holding the largest stock of vintage neon signs in Europe. Vince loved it: “What a fantastic place! It felt like stepping back in time. If I’d walked through the door, and suddenly been dressed in 1950s gear, I wouldn’t be surprised.” Andy did too. “I felt like it was being inside a virtual reality game. I loved that it felt like being in a different world. That’s what I want our new album to convey.”
Even though the world has changed hugely since that shoot, Erasure knew they still wanted The Neon to still come out this summer. It offers us warmth and a brilliant brightness in its sound in our times. It connects us to our pasts and our futures as it glistens with hope. It creates beautiful places where our imaginations can roam, bringing us together, twinkling and beaming. The Neon puts you and me in a celebratory world again, now and forever, illuminated and alive.
Erasure’s The Neon is released on Mute on 21 August 2020.