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Starting soft and staying there, Nightbird takes more than a couple listens to pay real dividends, but that Erasure are revitalized is evident first time through. Gone is the trying-too-hard surface-pop of Cowboy and Other People's Songs and back is the intimate, introspective, and great lyrical moments of the ballads scattered among the duo's best albums. Song after song displays that lead singer Andy Bell has grown remarkably as a writer. His vivid tales of isolation and painful regret don't have that Morrissey sting in the tail, but they're just as good for weepy evenings and are just as honest/cathartic as anything the Mozz has written. Bell's prerelease announcement that he's HIV positive explains the malaise that's here and there on Nightbird, but the man's been secretly dealing with the disease since 1998 and his "coming out" relief is reflected in the album's positive energy and extra helping of hope. It's Bell's album, and much like thumbing through his diary, but synth whizz Vince Clarke is up to the task, providing clean and tidy tunes in classic Erasure style. He must have dusted off all his old machinery, since the bleeps and beats of the album are familiar, plus the "woah-oh-oh!" of "No Doubt" brings reminders of the great "Love to Hate You," just at half-tempo. That's something to point out. With only two up-tempo numbers, Nightbird isn't made for the dancefloor. It's a "headphone album" or a "when you're alone" album, and considering the band's campy past, a surprisingly excellent one. Bell's dealings with HIV have obviously influenced Nightbird, but he rarely points right to it, making the album adaptable to any listener's own introspection. Smart, moving, approachable, and well constructed, Nightbird is Erasure's mature masterpiece.

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