Pet Shop Boys
, July 12th, 2013 08:22
"TURN IT ON." When you review music, you get the urge to Do A Morley every now and then. Do A Morley (dictionary definition): the act of engineering a research-heavy, word-weighty extrapolation of a work of art, because more straightforward reviews have been done elsewhere/the artist(s) in question have a deep well of references within their body of work/you, the writer, fancy poncing about like a tit for a bit, and can't properly organise your thoughts on the page. This is an especially strong urge when a) you love the band, b) every review you have ever written about them has had to fight against this love, c) you're looking at a notebook full of words ringed with red, exclamation marks, inky asterisks, and can't quite work out how to bloody start, let alone continue, and finish. So: massive apologies in advance for taking some liberties.
"TURN IT UP." The Pet Shop Boys' twelfth album in 27 years begins with an instruction from Neil Tennant. Well, that's a liberty taken already, as it doesn't quite: it begins with two cosmic synthesiser lines weaving in and out of each other, one scrunchy and buzzy like a ZX Spectrum's loading process, the other a sinister repeated arpeggio going from the fourth to the fifth to the tonic, again and again and again, getting closer and closer. These separate lines slow and fade, then merge messily together, before Neil Tennant tells us what to do, in a stage whisper, like God. "Turn it up." A second later, a huge, messy thunderclap. Obey – BANG – here we go. Electric slams into life with 'Axis'. This was the track first dripped onto the internet a few months ago, at the astral heights of the Daft Punk PR daft-athon. As Luke Turner of this parish has previously said, here were two other interesting men who liked wearing extravagant headgear. Tennant and Lowe were summoning up sounds from the pivot of the 1970s and 1980s too, sounds that had flurried out of Germany and Italy and France via the US and outer space, not long before that summer's day in 1981 when two Northern Englishmen met in an electronics shop on London's Kings Road.
Here were the Pet Shop Boys acknowledging the music that came immediately before them, which has returned to prominence now. As have they.
"E-LEC-TRIC ENERGY. E-LEC-TRIC ENERGY." Earlier this year, I watched an interview with Ralf Hütter from 1981 in which he talked about electricity existing within us. My crap cribsheet: we are made of atoms. Atoms change and become charged. Electrons travel between them, and we are all electrical beings. Therefore music that has electrical charges and currents rushing right through it is not cold or removed from us: it is as human as we are. We live in an age where electronic music is hardwired into popular consciousness, but how funny it is that its roots have been in our own consciousnesses all along. Therefore, it's completely natural to respond to its positive and negative charges, to feel it strike like lightning, and shudder after its thunder roars.
"BOLSHY, BOLSHY, BOLSHY-O." There are no better masters of delivering both positive and negative charges than the Pet Shop Boys. They traverse both sides of life, the yin and the yang, the mixing of arts high and low, desires base and intellectual, ideas ridiculous and sublime… often at the same time.
Take 'Bolshy', the second track on Electric. Neil Tennant told Idolator that it's about being awkward and loud, as the word "bolshy" suggests, but it also plays with its roots in the word Bolshevik. "Raise your voice, start a feud,' he relays, in his trademark monotone, each line echoed in Russian by a woman – how very fittingly Communist. Soon after, simpler, more Western pop sentiments appear. The line "I'll wait if you say it'll be worth my while" could come from any English love song in the last 50 years, while the house-style pianos accompanying it sound immediate, instant, direct. Then comes another, much deeper lyric: "There are you pretending that you own me / I don't believe you don't know you could own me". There are levels behind simple desires, you know. It's silly to pretend these things aren't important.
"YOU WALK IN AND LIGHT UP THE ROOM." Everyone knows that the Pet Shop Boys' music is usually happy-sad stuff. They offer the listener joy undercut with melancholy, tragedy with a smirk on its chops. But this time round, they feel almost completely positive. Which feels odd at first. Then it doesn't.
Perhaps it's because the Pet Shop Boys' last album, Elysium, was somewhat disappointing. Perhaps it's because Electric is their first album since they left Parlophone (they're now on their own brilliantly minimally-named label, x2), and that it's come out so quickly, so suddenly, only ten months after their last. Or perhaps it's because the duo moved to Berlin to write a few years ago. It's a place Tennant compared to New York in the 80s in one interview, a place "free of distractions", full of energy, and with a super-club, Berghain, that they would go to on Sundays, after lunch (give them a break, young ravers – Neil's 60 next year). Or perhaps it's about getting Stuart Price to finally produce them on record, the man who worked his magic on Madonna's last great album, Confessions On A Dancefloor. To some, it may seem that Price has been around forever, but he's still only 35, as am I. Having also been a child who lived in the full beam of great 80s pop music, when club music got co-opted into chart music and became the soundtrack to our lives – 'Like A Virgin', 'West End Girls', 'Papa Don't Preach', 'It's A Sin' – I understand why he's the right man to revisit their first flashes, their early sparks, and make them shine, neon-style.
'Flourescent' is fabulous, like a early jack music track. The minor key bassline, the high sprinkles of melody, dirtied up by a female breath being used as a percussive beat. It's totally Chicago 86, pretty Lil' Louis. 'Inside A Dream' starts like a brilliant lost song from Kraftwerk's Tour De France Soundtracks , shimmering its sequence of long, sonorous notes, before layers of rhythm stack up, slot together, in perfect combination – a dancing riff, the chk-chk of an upbeat, an electronic voice, a downbeat's relief. 'Shouting In The Evening' is as Poppers O'Clock as you can get, battering the senses with the skuzziest, gurgliest noises the band have used for years, and a four-to-the-floor beat that mashes your brain into pate. BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG. "This is a bit much," said my husband when he came home from work one day to hear it ricocheting down our street. But for this fan, as the song says, it "feels so good. Feels. So. Good."
5. "WHEN YOU'RE IN THIS MOOD, THERE'S NO RETURN." This album makes me surge with joy unconfined, but is that enough? I read a review of the new Fuck Buttons album in Wire magazine last month that began: "there's something slightly base about equating emotion with meaningfulness". Later, the reviewer added, quite rightly, "whoever emotes most, wins". There's truth in this in popular culture, but it got me thinking about other things too. Do my emotional connections with the Pet Shop Boys, which run right through my life, stifle my so-called critical faculties? Are my residual memories of being obsessed with Heart at the age of ten, and finding out about Che Guevera and Debussy thanks to 'Left To My Own Devices', bad things? In some ways, I'm sure they are.
A day later, listening to a Slate magazine podcast, my thoughts switched around though. A critic praised how good emotions offered "liberatory pleasures", two words that got under my skin. I thought of rave culture, the freedom of enjoyment, those moments in my life when joy opened up the whole world to me. Fuck it, I thought, emotions do make us change things. They make us forge connections, go places, act on things. Yes, the Pet Shop Boys' music makes me smile, makes me move, but it make me think and speak too.
Then I hear Tennant sing, "I need some meaning / Expressed with feeling." Those two things together are everything. They show us what pop music can do.
"I'LL BE TAKING MY TIME FOR A LONG TIME." When I saw the Pet Shop Boys at the o2 the other week, I left disappointed. Why? They didn't play one of their new songs. I know this sounds contrary at best, snootily in-the-know at worst. But 'Love Is A Bourgeois Construct' is the best thing they've done in years. It's a song inspired by a passage from David Lodge's novel, Nice Work, in which a woman tells a man, who adores her, that there is no such thing as love. "It's a bourgeois fallacy," she says there, a phrase which Neil Tennant echoes in melody here. But oh GOD, what a song it is, summing up the Pet Shop Boys' genius in six-and-a-half minutes. First, there's its main musical motif. It comes from Purcell's King Arthur opera, but is perhaps better known for its use by Michael Nyman in his soundtrack to Peter Greenaway's 1982 bodice-ripper, The Draughtman's Contract – another early ‘80s brainworm there, be it coincidence or not. Here however, it leaves its stately grandeur behind, and becomes a raved-up monstrous riff. How great it is to look at the credits too, and see Tennant/Lowe/Purcell. This song tells of someone retreating from love to be a wastrel. They're not washing the dishes, they're watching the weeds grow, they're "hanging out with various riff-raff somewhere on the Goldhawk Road" instead. The protagonist is so anti-bourgeois he's "drinking tea like Tony Benn". This knowingness could be too much, is the music around it wasn't so much fun.
Later, a male voice choir joins in on the Purcell theme – "ah-ah-ah-AHHH!" – for bonus 'Go West' points. But go a bit deeper, and this song says lots about heartbreak, denial, and what people do to survive. The last line offer a brilliant twist too: "I've given up the bourgeoisie / Until you come back to me."
Clever lyrics wrapped in music that reaches out to the world, like this stuff does... there's lots more in that vein on Electric. 'Shouting In The Evening' is named after actor Michael Gambon's description of what theatre acting really is. 'Fluorescent', 'Axis', 'Bolshy' and 'Vocal' continue the Pet Shop Boys' winning way of elevating the power of one word. And do the songs behind those titles justify their power? Yes. Very.
"A VOICE DRIFTED UP FROM THE RADIO/SOME OTHER VOICE FROM LONG AGO." A quick anecdote here before the home-run, my friends. One night last summer, after several stiff drinks, my friends and husband and I were trawling through Spotify, when we realised something quite strange. These Pet Shop Boys' songs we were playing would work if they were sung by Bruce Springsteen. 'Suburbia' was our no. 1 choice for the Boss. Just imagine him yowling "let's take a riiiiiide down with the dogs toniiiight". Or "I love youuuuu, you pay my rent". Small lives in small towns, the yins and yangs of emotional life... popular experiences, popular music. Vice versa didn't quite work though, we thought, as we considered the prospect of Neil Tennant singing 'Born To Run'. But here we are.
One of the two biggest surprises on Electric is 'The Last To Die', a cover of a track on Springsteen's 2007 album, Magic. Written in the aftermath of the last Iraq War, it's a song that becomes something very different on this record, but no less engaged. It has less rage but more pathos, less despair but more poignancy. Also, it sounds like a Pet Shop Boys song, which shows a) how political long-standing pop stars still are, b) how big the Pet Shop Boys' canvas really is, and how this isn't talked about often. (For the most obvious recent example, try 2009 b-side 'We're All Criminals Now' about Jean Charles de Menezes.) The Pet Shop Boys drop other social comments onto Electric too. There are "bankers' bonuses" on 'Love Is A Bourgeois Construct', here is someone who has made their "mark /with the helicopters/and the occasional oligarch" – nice rhyme – on Fluorescent. And Neil Tennant's voice throughout… I could write for hours about the power of his understated, un-singer-like delivery, and how untraditional pop voices, like his, often say so much more to the audience about the world. But hell, you've been through enough here. It's time to start winding down now.
"IT'S THURSDAY NIGHT, LET'S GET IT RIGHT." The last big surprise of Electric is Example popping up to rap in ‘Thursday's middle-eight. This is a song about the rejuvenating power of the weekend, and how it can make the potential of something that's not working surge back into life. What a metaphor that could be for what's going on here… but on paper, the combination of these musicians sounds naff, awkward, bolshy. To the ear here however, it feels completely natural. How great it is, too, that two men that have been together for 33 years are still trying to be relevant, still wanting to connect… and with someone as huge in pop now as Elliott Gleave, a man born two years after the Pet Shop Boys became a band. He's a proper stadium player these days too, and it was great to see him at the o2 with Tennant and Lowe the other week. "Take that trip down memory lane," he rapped there with a smile on his face, as you assume he does here, bringing the past and present together. He does so with punch, before this album's final push.
"ANYTHING I'D WANT TO SAY OUT LOUD WILL BE SUNG." Then comes the 'Vocal', the ninth and final track. On one level – those layers, yet again – it's an affectionate tribute to the days when dance music usually involved singers. But it's more than that too. It's about what music can be, and should be: the articulation of being human.
So I do what Tennant told me at the beginning of Electric, and turn it up. Like the other singers he references, Tennant still sounds "lonely and strange", even after all these many, many years. But "the feeling of the warmth around us" he talks about, the context it provides… it's also hard to deny its power here. Around him, bolts of Euro-trance keys take the listener higher and higher, again and again, and truly this is music "expressing passion, explaining pain," music in which "aspirations for a better life are ordained". This is feeling expressed with meaning in music that makes me fill notebooks with scrawl, that makes me ponce about like a tit, that makes me move and smile and think and speak and be… as it tells me how sublime, and simple, the Pet Shop Boys music can be.
Apologies for all the above. It's just that I like these people. I like their songs. This is my kind of music. Let's play it all year long.