Andy Bell has enjoyed a 30-year run of hits with his musical partner Vince Clarke in Erasure, the legendary duo who’ve managed to navigate the fickle world of pop music far longer than most artists can dream.
Early hits like “Sometimes” and “A Little Respect” are still beloved, and they continue to release vital new music. “Violent Flame” (2014) was their 16th album and they promoted it with a successful tour before wildly enthusiastic crowds that included two nights at the 9:30 Club in D.C. It would be easy for the dynamic vocalist to spend his down time from Erasure enjoying the fruits of his success.
But resting on his laurels doesn’t seem to be in the cards for Andy Bell. His new solo album “Torsten the Beautiful Libertine” is an ambitious collection of songs featured in the stage show of the same name, which opened this week at London’s Above the Stag Theatre (which bills itself as “The UK’s LGBT Theatre”).
Torsten first appeared as a character in a 2014 song cycle written for Bell by Barney Ashton-Bullock and Christopher Frost called “Torsten the Bareback Saint” that was performed in London and Edinburgh, and made into an album. The new show and album — also written by Ashton-Bullock and Frost — is a more fully developed exploration of a decidedly unique character. On the Above the Stag website, Torsten is described as an “age-defying, polysexual hero” who lives an abnormally long life, and has plenty of time to reflect on all of the connections — sexual and otherwise — he’s made over the years. Seeing a neverending parade of deaths unfold before him renders Torsten melancholy and unwilling to get close to anybody to protect himself from the continued pangs of loss.
If you’re expecting the electrifying dance-pop Bell is known for with Erasure and on his two prior solo albums (2005’s “Electric Blue” and 2010’s “Non-Stop”), seek elsewhere. This is musical theater, and Bell’s expressive tenor suits the medium perfectly. Erasure’s music has always been family friendly and generally upbeat, so it’s something of a shock hearing Bell singing pieces like “Blow Jobs for Cocaine” and “Ooh Baby, You’re so Queercore,” but it works.
The songs deal with various aspects of Torsten’s experiences and they are often grandiose and richly beautiful. “Beautiful Libertine” is an early highlight, emphasizing the always-impressive vocal range that Bell continues to possess. The sardonic ballad “This Town Needs Jesus” is another standout, with Bell delivering an impassioned vocal over a piano accompaniment. He’s clearly invested in this material and gives one convincing performance after another.
Some tracks, like “Lady Domina Bizarre” and “The Slums We Loved,” are highly orchestral, but there are unexpected left turns. “We Were Singing Along to Liza” is a poignantly nostalgic dance track that will surely inspire a bevy of remixes. “Photos of Daniel” is a hauntingly beautiful reminiscence of better days. “My Precious Ones,” which has been issued as the album’s lead single, has the most standard pop arrangement on the album. It’s a melodic guitar-based track with terrific harmonies.
As with any musical theater piece, it’s a challenge to fully realize the vision conceptualized in “Torsten The Beautiful Libertine” without seeing the show. There are so many ideas thrown at us over the span of 17 tracks that it’s hard to completely absorb it. But even as a conceptual album, “Torsten” is always entertaining and surprising, as the songs veer in unanticipated directions. Bell’s voice shines throughout, the writing is smart and unpredictable and Torsten is an interesting character that will hopefully stick around to chronicle more triumphs and tragedies and adventures.