Shelter are a familiar name to anyone with a passing interest in the solo work of Erasure’s Andy Bell given his collaboration with the duo on 2014’s iPop album, another in a series of extra-curricular projects from the Erasure frontman that have started to emerge in the past few years.
The team of Mark Bebb and Rob Bradley describe Ascend as a more mature offering, and while that might be true in the sense of its slightly more emotional, slowed-up moments, the album is also 100% true to the Shelter sound – namely slick, polished, generally upbeat electronic pop songs that lean heavily toward modern hi-NRG club-friendly structures (see the vaguely ‘Jump’-referencing ‘This Must Be Love’) – but also finds the collaborations that have coloured their previous releases consciously absent.
Judging by the lyrics and phrasing on tracks like the opener ‘Breathless’ or ‘Do You Remember’, Shelter’s time in the company of Andy Bell has evidently rubbed off on them. Mark Bebb’s vocal on these songs has the same thwarted, disappointed, defenceless quality – they’re love songs, for sure, but they seem to be delivered from a unrequited vantage point. Bell has made a career out of that bruised, fragile quality, amplified by Vince Clarke’s sympathetic synth melodies, and what you have here is a decent emulation of that latter-day Erasure style. It’s a formula that Shelter revisit throughout the album, but without ever making them sound like one trick ponies or like they’re just trying to rip off their mates.
Elsewhere, there are moments of rapturous surrender, pitched perfectly for the secret corners of nightclubs; tracks like ‘In The Dark’ might have the rhythm and pace demanded by clubland, but the tone is sullen, dangerous, edgy. Some of the best moments on Ascend happen when Shelter slow things right down and eschew the politics of the dancing for the type of pop music that seemed to wither and die about thirty years ago. ‘Figaro’, for example, is all Latin-inflected rhythms and sun-baked summery heartbreak. The track has that whole ‘La Isla Bonita’ mystery thing down to a fine art, with the juxtaposition of jangly guitars and melodramatic, shimmering melodies more than enough to get a jaded pop music fan like me properly wistful.
It may be a simple product of my general disdain for a pop music landscape which feels duty-bound to use collaborations as the only way to keep things vaguely interesting, but the most compelling moments on Ascend are undoubtedly those that find Shelter operating as a self-contained unit. When they lock the doors to the studio and leave the collaborators outside, Ascend is a smart, well-crafted, confident electronic pop album with plenty of fine songs that suggests a duo finding their own voice.
(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence