Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Album [#2]

What’s a boy in love supposed to do?

WONDERLAND [US] (Sire, 1986)

If there is a point from which I understand all the other music of the world, Wonderland might be it. All else is obfuscation, distortion, amplification, evolution, de-evolution, replacement and memory loss. It includes some of the earliest songs I can remember, and it’s amazing to think that the music of age 4 has stayed with me and changed with me all these years, if sometimes subterraneously. In the last post, I took Greg Sage’s gloominess for granted and neglected to mention the joy received from his music’s propulsiveness and melodicism (like the exhilaration of a well-made film, however grim), qualities for which Erasure are the reference point and purest expression (for me, to quote Randy Jackson).

A brief history of my history with Erasure: 1991’s Chorus is an album so pre-historic it might as well describe my crib. Much later, I remember driving in my high school’s parking lot playing Pop! The First 20 Hits in my minivan’s tape deck, wishing someone could hear it through the cracked window. Pixies fans were a dime a dozen, but to have found a fellow Erasure lover might have changed my life. Synth pop was a private rebellion, way better than punk rock. I bought Wonderland early in my sophomore year of college, quickly realizing that my prison cell dorm room could not be borne in its absence. I learned the pleasure of waiting for the night. Then as always, there was only so much I could do to clean up my face, but to shave, comb my hair, and put on a clean shirt while listening to Erasure, loud, after the sun had gone down outside that fluorescent dungeon, was a moment greater than anything that ever came after.

And what about the music itself? Well, if “Borderline” ever fails to make me happy, these are the only ten songs that might be able to save me. There’s nothing to indicate that singer Andy Bell and composer Vince Clarke were kindred spirits, or even liked each other, but Wonderland is the sound of two men working side by side, bringing out the best in each other and constructing a vision of the world—not exclusively interior or material, but full of rich emotion and sensation, aural and visual splendor, singable sadness and touchable sound. Ah, you might say, keyboard sounds often seem touchable, but that does not make them any less cheap. Yes, but this is a synth pop album, not a keyboard album, which means that the composer, working with instruments called synthesizers and sequencers, has carefully chosen the sounds and textures heard in his songs. And because Vince Clarke is one of the great composers of the era, the sounds have not just been chosen, but labored over. His arrangements are so good, in fact, that they make up for the often banal lyrics, even imbue them with an overwhelming romanticism, make their generalities more specific. Andy Bell doesn’t have to do much to sell these songs, as a result, so he can reign in the theatrics and simply sing what the words mean to him, expressively, tenderly. The end result, called Wonderland, calculated creation though it is, feels nearly as spontaneous as Pet Sounds, another calculated piece of pop music, very differently arranged and just as unlikely to make you gay.

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