When you hear talk about an Erasure album being twenty years old, it’s easy to assume it’s one of the early ones that’s being discussed. But this week we celebrate the coming of age of Cowboy.
The late 1990s weren’t entirely kind to Erasure. Before Britpop came along, they still held enough sway to reach the number one spot with their 1994 comeback album I Say I Say I Say, and the following year’s eponymous album also charted respectfully (at that time, even a number 14 album in November would have easily sold enough to have reached the top 200 of the year).
A little over a year later came Cowboy, released in the traditionally quieter first quarter of the year, and thanks to some creative scheduling it scraped into the top ten and delivered a couple of respectable placings for its singles.
This is an album characterised by three or four minute pop music. It starts with Rain, a perfect four-minute song which really does put most mid-90s pop to shame. This was also released as the third single, although the German release failed to chart, and the UK release followed in the steps of the previous year’s Rock Me Gently by appearing only in chart ineligible versions. It definitely deserved to be a hit.
For perhaps the first time for nearly a decade, this album saw Erasure concentrating on what made them great – short, snappy, catchy pop songs. Worlds on Fire is followed by Reach Out, before we get to the understated but beautiful first single In My Arms.
It’s a strange one, in a way – think of what else was on the chart at this time, and you realise just how good this was, but it also doesn’t quite have the drive that you might expect of a lead single. Not for the first time, I think Erasure got their strategy slightly wrong – maybe if the first two singles had been switched around, things could have gone even better for them?
The second single comes next, the extravagantly titled Don’t Say Your Love is Killing Me. It’s difficult to think of exactly which of their previous hits they’re channelling here, but somehow this sounds entirely the way you would expect Erasure to sound. Which is fine – that seems to have been exactly what they were trying to do with this album.
Think of this, perhaps, as a last cry for acceptance. Followed by the “guitar album” Loveboat, then the cover version album Other People’s Songs, it would be close to a decade before they produced anything anywhere near this good again – even two decades before they resumed their previously consistent form.
Which is difficult to swallow around the middle of this album, as Precious and Treasure are both brilliant – the latter bringing shades of their 1991 album Chorus. In retrospect, this was even a fairly contemporary album – Vince Clarke may have still been delighting in sequencing his backing tracks on an antique BBC computer, but as we saw earlier, there were plenty of similar but less competently produced songs on the charts.
There’s nothing particularly downtempo on here, but Boy is one of the gentlest songs, and also turned out to be the fourth single from this album when the acoustic version was released a decade later.
There is a bit of room for Clarke to do a bit of silly synth work, so that’s how How Can I Say kicks off, building into another fun song before the brilliantly flamboyant Save Me Darling. There’s really nothing bad on here, and at barely forty minutes it’s nice and compact too.
Closing the album is the stunning Love Affair. It’s also somewhat understated – in the hands of another producer, this could easily have been an enormous, anthemic piece. Erasure gave it 808 cowbell sounds. But why not? It sounds amazing, and as always, Andy Bell‘s vocal performance really brings it to life.
It’s easy to feel a degree of sadness now when listening to this, knowing just how long it would take them to do something this good again. But it’s also an extremely good little album – and what more can you ever really ask for?
The original release of Cowboy is still widely available, and it’s also now available in a nice heavyweight vinyl edition too.