Unnerving as they may be, I think it’s already time for another anniversary. I’ve mentioned already a couple of times that I think Erasure‘s third album The Innocents really kicked off what one of their biggest pop rivals famously referred to as their “imperial phase”. It therefore seems only fitting to celebrate the anniversary of the release of that album. What’s perhaps more surprising though, is that its original release was exactly 25 years ago this week.
It has an oddly illustrious history, having entered the charts at number one and then returned there nearly a year later, less thanks to the singles from the album than the chart compilers’ decision to exclude compilations from the chart. Then finally, a couple of years ago it was the first of Erasure‘s albums to see the full remaster treatment, resurfacing with a breathtaking level of clarity and also a slightly unnecessary second disc of remixes and live tracks.
The Innocents opens with one of Erasure‘s best known and loved singles A Little Respect. For my part, I’ve never quite been able to enjoy this song in the way everybody else seems to, but it’s undeniably strong.
Second up, however, is lead single Ship of Fools, which by way of some kind of connection to my childhood has always been an exceptionally powerful and evocative song for me, and one about which I could probably write several hundred words without any effort. It’s an unusual and unpredictable pop song: dark, stomping, and atmospheric in many ways; and yet as with all of Erasure‘s finest songs it also has many chirpy pop elements. I suppose that’s the key – it’s the perfect mixture of happy pop with hidden darker elements.
The third track is Phantom Bride, the single that never was, until the 2009 reissue, when it finally appeared alongside a package of new remixes. Another beautiful pop song with an oddly mediaeval atmosphere, you have to wonder slightly why it was never released as a single in the first place.
Second single Chains of Love follows, an energetic, pumping song which pushed them back into the top five for the first time since Sometimes in 1986. But it’s the following track Hallowed Ground where Erasure truly show their colours. Full of grimy post-industrial urban atmosphere, it’s an early example of Andy Bell‘s ability to compose total lyrical perfection while Vince Clarke constructs an apocalyptic backdrop. Hidden away halfway through the album, it’s probably easy to forget, but it may well be one of the best songs Erasure have ever written.
Also easy to forget is the following piece. After the continuous brilliance of Side A, the bubble probably had to burst at some point, but why did it had to burst to this degree? Kicking off Side B is the entirely unnecessary 65,000. Vince Clarke‘s instrumentals have always been variable (I’m looking at you, I Before E Except After C), but quite what possessed them, pretty much at the height of their careers, to put this turgid dross onto the album and to omit the exceptional When I Needed You is entirely beyond me. Maybe they just thought things were getting a bit too heavy at this point.
Next up is Heart of Stone, which benefits somewhat from Stephen Hague‘s mature production, but to me is clearly a leftover track from one of their earlier albums. With its unnecessary brass lines, it’s passable at best. And the downturn continues with the entirely forgettable soul-flavoured Yahoo!, after which the search engine was famously named (OK, I made that fact up purely so I had something interesting to say about this lousy track).
Amongst all this negativity it’s worth a mention for the album’s packaging. After the naff faux-storybook sleeve of Wonderland (1986) and the odd technicolor of The Circus (1987), they truly excelled themselves by half-inching a stained glass window from Chartres Cathedral. The remaster also comes in lovely book-like packaging.
Halfway through Side B, Imagination is an odd inclusion. Much of its style is again reminiscent of their earlier albums, but on either of them it would have been one of the strongest tracks. Despite some questionable rhymes (Medusa… will seduce you?) it’s a sweet and catchy song, which has dated rather less well than anything on the first half of the album, but still has a lot in its favour. It also holds a strange place in my heart, having once woken me up going round and round in my head despite the fact that I didn’t at the time own a copy of the album and so couldn’t have heard it for at least five years.
Witch in the Ditch is another one to forget, and the final track Weight of the World brings something of a return to the atmosphere of earlier tracks, but still has little to say for itself. Sadly, the general theme of the second half of the album seems to be a series of leftovers from Wonderland and The Circus. This might well have been a good idea at the time, particularly if they needed to put the album together quickly, but after the total excellence of Side A, it’s easy to be disappointed now, exactly a quarter of a century later.
Unusually, I think it would be impossible to review this album without mentioning the bonus tracks. It was still early days for the CD album, and even for the cassette, and so both formats added two extra tracks, alternative versions of the b-sides from the first single. So firstly When I Needed You is, as I suggested earlier, one of the finest tracks on the album, even if it didn’t make it onto the LP. It has all the power and emotion of the first half of The Innocents, without all the silliness of the second half.
The final track is perhaps the oddest of the lot, the seven-and-a-half minute cover of River Deep, Mountain High. I have no idea what possessed them to do this, and it definitely hits its strangest point in the first verse when Bell sings “When I was a little girl I had a rag doll.” But it’s strangely compelling, and extremely enjoyable, and the false ending is inspired.
So, taken as a whole, The Innocents is a somewhat schizophrenic third album, but on balance and in the Catholic spirit of the packaging I have to be forgiving and say that the bad moments are far outweighed by the excellent ones. All told, this album may not have aged especially well, but it did deserve its time at the top of the chart and the many awards it won at the time. Twenty-five years ago.
If you don’t already own a copy, the only version worth owning of this album is the 2009 remaster in the lovely packaging, but that seems to have long since sold out, so instead I’d advise you to go for the single disc remastered edition, on Amazon.co.uk here.