When This Is Not Retro spoke to Andy Bell last year at the time of the Variance collection that re-worked tracks from the first Torsten show and album, it was clear how important this collaboration with Barney Ashton-Bullock – and the character of Torsten – was to Bell. "It enables me to bring some demons or darkness or whatever is inside," he told us. "With Torsten I'm drawing on some of the bad experiences that I've had in my own life, but which people might not know about quite so much."
The Beautiful Libertine is the sequel to that first instalment of the Torsten story and finds the protagonist having upped sticks to liberal Paris to live the life of a drug-fuelled wastrel namechecking Sartre and Wilde and running through a further litany of faltering affairs. We find Torsten alternating between living the life of reckless abandon, brutally disappointed, angry and bitter; a series of episodes that seem to deepen Torsten's abject misery rather than granting him any freedom.
These tales have the same decadent, fly-on-the-wall character exploration that made Lou Reed’s lyrics around the time of Transformer so compelling. It can be no greater compliment to Ashton-Bullock's writing that the frank, unvarnished descriptions of figures like Lady Domina Bizarre are every bit as captivating as anything Reed wrote about the hangers-on around Andy Warhol’s various Factories.
It's difficult to suggest, on the evidence, that Torsten has either learned his lesson or found solace in his life. He remains as washed-up, confused and thwarted as he was in the first part of this sorry tale; older, for sure, but hardly wiser. As for Bell, his performance here exhibits a huge amount of growth; the physical, gruelling nightly performance of the role at the 2014 Edinburgh Festival aside, his mastery of the character’s development through Ashton-Bullock's lyrics was unchartered territory for a singer so readily associated with pop songs. And yet somehow the quality of his delivery on The Beautiful Libertine makes the first album seem strangely tentative and naïve in comparison. The nuances here are richer; the disappointments more pronounced; the whole thing more assured, despite Torsten's ongoing slow-motion nihilism.
It's not just Bell growing here; the bold strokes of Ashton-Bullock's writing seem to have become even more confident, while the arrangements from Christopher Frost seem somehow more detailed, more complex, particularly on songs like the majestic pop of 'Loitering With Intent', 'We Were Singing Along With Liza' or 'My Precious One', or the fragile grace of 'Photos Of Daniel'. It would perhaps be unfair to call this a more polished affair, but that's exactly how it sounds.
In our interview, Bell gushed about his complete love of acting and performance, and The Beautiful Libertine is where that interest becomes fully and almost irreversibly realised. If you can – again – get over the strangeness of Bell singing raw, intense and decidedly adult lyrics that would never in a million years grace an Erasure song, what you hear is an artist undergoing a major career metamorphosis with absolute and complete conviction. With this accomplished and arresting second chapter, it's more challenging than ever before to imagine Bell returning to Erasure in quite the same way now he's discovered Torsten's unique voice.
Statement Of Intent / Beautiful Libertine / Loitering With Intent / This Town Needs Jesus / The Slums We Loved / Lady Domina Bizarre / (Oooh Baby, You’re So) Queercore! [With Lana Pillay] / BJ4C / I’m Your Lover / Rupert Drinks Vodka / We Were Singing Along To Liza / Photos Of Daniel / I Am The Boy Who Smiled At You / Bond Street Catalogues / My Precious One / To Have And To Hold / Statement Of Intent (Reprise)
'Torsten The Beautiful Libertine' is released on March 4th 2016 on CD and via Digital Download.
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