Review Summary: Catchy and concise yet innovating and influential, it's quite possibly Vince Clarke's finest hour.
Vince Clarke was never one for remaining static for very long, shifting from immediate success with Depeche Mode's first album (Speak & Spell) in 1981, to Yazoo (or 'Yaz' as the duo is known in the US, due to legal reasons), to a short lived project called 'The Assembly', before ultimately settling with Andy Bell to form 'Erasure' in 1985. Whichever formation garners the most pleasure from listeners is a matter of subjectivity, but when regarding objectivity, i.e. which of his projects, in hindsight, has produced the highest level of innovation and influence, Yazoo's debut (Upstairs at Eric's, 1982) makes for a very strong contender.
The Basildon boy with an obsession for analogue synthesisers made important groundwork with innovating Depeche singles like 'Just Can't Get Enough' and 'New Life', but for the most part 'Speak & Spell' sounded like a clumsy sonic experiment, ending in mixed results. Clarke's early toying around with synths finally came into full fruition on 'Upstairs at Eric's', and he managed to grow from rather awkward, misguided efforts like 'Boys Say Go!', into touching and observed, synth-pop ballads like 'Only You'.
'Only You' is a perfect summation of why 'Upstairs at Eric's' remains so acclaimed and adored, as it showcases the curious blend of danceable synth-pop and powerful, bluesy vocals the duo is remembered for. Alison Moyet's consistently sublime purr gives Clarke's robotic beats and rhythms a human touch, providing listeners with songs that are as equally danceable as they are heartfelt. On paper it doesn’t work, but in reality it's most definitely satisfying. Take, for example, the iconic opener 'Don't Go', beginning with what has to be one of the most memorable and infectious synth riffs of all time, it finds its sprightly electronic melody getting warmed up by Moyet's aggressive, emotional delivery.
There's an abundance of other concise, synth-pop classics on the album, including (on most versions) 'Situation' with its low, bubbling melody and 'Bad Connection' with its undeniably cheesy, but utterly charming chorus, "Can you hear me" Can you hear me at all" Gotta get the operator, make a telephone call" - it's just one of several instances of pure, synth-pop perfection to be heard on 'Upstairs at Eric's'. Clarke's love of experimenting with early synth technology finds it's home on the instrumental 'I Before E Except After C', whose 4 minutes and 43 seconds length is comprised of a repeated loop of a voice reading out the same 3 or 4 sentences, spliced with scarce blips and beeps in the background. 'Winter Kills' (one of Moyet's few lyrical efforts, the others being; the soulful 'Midnight', the energetic 'Goodbye 70's', and the anthem that should’ve been, 'Bring Your Love Down (Didn't I)') changes the flavour, with an icy cold piano melody and airy wailing, floating behind Moyet's deliberate vocals.
Yazoo have influenced many in the years subsequent their 1983 break-up, evidenced by the astonishing amount of times tracks like 'Don’t Go' and 'Situation' have been remixed or referenced as an influence. After listening to 'Upstairs at Eric's' it's not difficult to understand why. Each track just nailed what it needed to achieve, producing songs that were perfectly accessible and hooky, whilst simultaneously managing to be contemporaneously groundbreaking and innovating. Yazoo would sadly call it a day a year later, and although it's expected (seeing as the restless Vince Clarke was at the helm) it's part of what makes this record so special. If Yaz carried on they'd inevitably become tiresome, but the point is they didn't. The duo only released 2 albums so they never had a chance to lose momentum, and Clarke's ideas and energy didn't get a chance to rest and become stale, leaving fans with an immediate blast of uncluttered and catchy synth-pop classics.