Electronic: Electronic (Special Edition) – album review

Electronic – Electronic (Special Edition) EMI

CD/DL

Out April 8th

On it’s original release in 1991 the self titled debut from Electronic was both hugely anticipated and critically lauded. Louder Than  War’s Frazer Cooke listens to see if it has stood the test of time.

Rereleases, repackages and remasters always prompt reminiscing and an evaluation of the context in which a record was spawned and usually they come out on an anniversary that is neatly divisible by 5 or 10.  However, the remaster of the debut album from Electronic is being issued 22 years after its initial release.  What is the meaning of “22”? Is this a particular record company strategy?  An oversight?  A contractual obligation? A bingo reference?  In trying to fathom the significance of the number I was prompted to consider; is the context really important?  Shouldn’t the record be allowed to be judged on its own merits?

When I first bought a copy (well, actually I taped it off a mate) of Electronic’s eponymous debut I was no particular fan of either New Order or The Smiths and the unification of these two Mancunian legends meant very little to me.  Untainted by opinions on the vintages of the two main collaborators I was able to enjoy the album for what it was, an uplifting piece of perfectly crafted synthpop.  In the intervening years my knowledge and appreciation of Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr’s individual discographies and the context in which Electronic was formed has grown.  I probably haven’t listened to the album much in the past two decades and certainly not in this millennium, so the chance to revaluate it was a tantalising prospect.

Released in May 1991 as one of Factory Record’s last rasping breaths the album was hugely anticipated and critically lauded.  Since then, in the popular consciousness, Electronic haven’t usurped the influence of Sumner and Marr’s other totemic bands and they remain no more than an interesting side note to Joy Division, New Order and The Smiths.   Their debut effort has not been particularly influential and even in 1991 wasn’t especially innovative.  Depeche Mode had released their seminal ‘Violator’ the previous year and had significantly raised the bar for electronic music with a seamless blending synth and string.  The pedigrees of the respective members of Electronic was arguably much greater with both having blazed trails individually for synthesiser and guitar music.

 

The opening track ‘Idiot Country’ doesn’t immediately suggest a harmonious fusion of their spheres of expertise.  If anything there’s a palpable relief when the jarring wah-wah of the opening verse gives way to a pulsating synth bass and crisp beats.  It does, however, divert the attention from Sumner’s John Barnes influenced rapping.   But, once you’ve given it a few listens all the elements of the song seem to work just fine.  This is a characteristic of the album as a whole, in that, even when it sounds dated or a bit unwieldy, the strength of the songs shine.  When it does droop, it suffers some of the negatives that characterise New Order’s music; they often took an effectively simple route to composition where others would overexert an idea.  However, this sometimes meant an over reliance on a stock sample or keyboard preset; so also with Electronic the orchestra and brass hits that pop up in ‘Tighten Up’ and ‘Gangster’ sound particularly dated.  In fact, it’s when they use production techniques that were contemporary in the 90’s that the songs sound most weathered – the aforementioned blasts, the ‘Rhythm Is A Dancer’ style loops of ‘Reality’ and the subdued post-rave stabs in ‘Try All You Want’ – all obvious influences of the tiresome ‘H-word’, through which much of Mancunian culture is refracted.  But, importantly, they never become overwhelming and there’s enough freshness in the compositions to rise above the limitations.

The choice of prosaic band name isn’t ironic; it’s a purposely practical description of the album contents.  It’s primarily a programmed affair and because of Sumner’s prominence as the vocalist there’s a danger of viewing it as a solo project with flourishes of Johnny Marr.  The collaboration of the Pet Shop Boys on the songs ‘Getting Away With It’ and ‘Patience of a Saint’, whose style effortlessly gels with the whole (the vocal styles of Sumner’s Salfordian melancholia and Tennant’s camp ennui are almost interchangeable) make it seem like they are more integral than Marr.  This view, though, would ignore his stated boredom with guitar based Indie music at the time.  For Marr the album reflects his desire to push his own musical boundaries beyond the limits of six strings.  It isn’t until the 8th track ‘Get The Message’ that his trademark jangle has a lead role in a song, but it’s a more complete album than anything from New Order which is testament to Marr’s input as co-songwriter.

This ‘special edition’ comes with a curious clutch of extras on a second disc.  An atemporal collection of various career spanning mixes and B-sides, none – other than the sublime ‘Disappointed’ – are particularly essential.

To look for comparisons with The Smiths, New Order and Joy Division is to overlook a record that stands on its own.  On paper a collaboration between Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr promises something different, and this is perhaps what later Electronic releases became, but what we have instead is a great electro-pop record and a deserved reissuing of something that should be regarded as a ‘classic’.

All words by Frazer Cooke. More work by Frazer on Louder Than War can be found here.

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