[T]hey have always managed to mirror the zeitgeist while retaining their cultural independence.
The above excerpt is taken from Michael Bracewell’s book, When Surface Was Depth, and it is a reference to Pet Shop Boys. Last week, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe released their tenth studio album, the Xenomania-produced Yes, and I’m convinced that the above statement still holds true. In fact, I’m nodding my head emphatically. There is a chronic self-awareness to what Pet Shop Boys do and it’s paired with off-hand social commentary neatly packed into pithy couplets. In his earlier book England is Mine, Bracewell aptly places Pet Shop Boys into English history:
By way of their sexuality, their political conscience, their urbane romanticism and their wit, the young Auden and Noël Coward with his pre-war cocktail of wit and emotional intensity […] are rehearsing much of the melancholy, humour and satire that the Pet Shop Boys were to bring to their own brand of ‘pop rush’ disco music in the 1980s.
Tennant and Lowe may have indeed always been so rooted in timeless style, but so ahead of themselves and their contemporaries in terms of popular culture, that they never seem to go out of fashion. And in this latest effort, they continue to probe the themes that have always set them apart – isolation, paranoia, infidelity, social mores and surveillence – with cool insouciance and dry humour.
The album kicks off with one of the best songs of the record, and the first single, Love etc., a catchy piece of satire on greed, success and fame. With its saucy mincing beat, Tennant’s idiosyncratically detached vocals, a meaty chanting chorus, and lines like “too much of anything is never enough,” this track continues to sidle into the recesses of my brain as it did when I first heard part of it performed at the Brits. That beautiful last bit of the chorus in which Tennant softly adds “But it helps” is quintessentially Pet Shop Boys and completes a dancefloor anthem in which love is just another branding strategy. The following track, All Over the World, which was also excerpted at the Brits, uses a fantastic Tchaikovsky sample as its opening juggernaut, and the pop wizardy continues throughout. As with most Pet Shop Boys songs, it cycles through dramatic theatrics, triumph, defeat, detachment and arch remarks while a giant heartbeat of bass accents the symphonic squiggles over top. The relationship between Pet Shop Boys music and their lyrics and vocal delivery is like surface tension on a tidal wave. Taking the mood into wistful, escapist fantasy and low-key, dreamy synthpop, Beautiful People fits into the Pet Shop Boys’ oeuvre perfectly; its opening line “City life just leaves me weak” hints at that very bourgeois desire for something beyond the bourgeois, where the beautiful elite become coveted props. Even the last few seconds are genius as aristocratic violins give way to a lonely, earthy harmonica.
For four of Yes‘s tracks, Johnny Marr plays guitar and returns the favour owed to Pet Shop Boys for their contributions to his Electronic project with Bernard Sumner; however, for Did You See Me Coming?, Marr’s guitarwork is at its most prominent and unmistakable as it opens the song before the melody bursts into a glorious explosion of synth ecstasy. It’s a sunny holiday of a track as it documents the first thrills of infatuation, and it could have easily been cheesy and horrible in different hands. The exhibitionist twinkle and sparkle winds down to a shimmery reverb for Vulnerable, yet another feat of melancholic wit. With lyrics like “it’s not easy surviving in the public eye,” it keeps you wondering whether it’s all just a brilliant double bluff. Even as the music erradiates outward in broad haloes of sound, it still feels guarded and introspective; the song’s core is a fetus-tight nucleus around which glass-like pings and precise beats revolve in a controlled orbit. The next track, More Than a Dream, follows with sad-eyed disco, and Tennant’s normally wispy vocals become positively frothy. At the lyric “driving through the night,” the song shifts into soaring pop odyssey and the melodies are sweet enough to induce heart palpitations.
Becoming more overtly political (rather than dissecting personal politics), the next track, Building a Wall, takes on Cold War attitudes and the bizarre sense of exposure, fear and loss when these strong divides in ideology break down. Against a backdrop of blissful synths, Tennant sings lines like “I’m building a fine wall not so much to keep you out, but more to keep me in” and “there’s nowhere to defect to anymore.” Lonely melancholy reappears on King of Rome, which is a slower, bongo-inflected song that displays a narrator full of tragic regret and delicious wishing, including “I long for your inscrutable, pale face.” The delicate surges of atmospheric electro are like cloud shadows traveling over varied landscape, bulging and tapering with the contours of the Earth’s surface. As showy as chorus girls kicking you the face, pumping electronic loops and a brash brass section introduces Pandemonium. Its lyrics match the jubilant bombast of the music with “Is this a riot or are you just pleased to see me?” and Tennant narrates a witty story of a partnership that represents extreme opposites; the wreckless, freewheeling bashing of the music expresses the apparent lack of control the narrator has over his/her lover and seems to point out how this entity disrupts and offends a polite, English respectability and restraint, a theme that crops up more than once in the Pet Shop Boys’ repertoire. Like an inexperienced rider on a galloping, runaway horse, the narrator quite tactfully says, “When you think about it, it’s quite an achievement that, after all, I still love you.”
The Way It Used to Be returns to a moodier tone of longing and regret – this time for youth – as an unrelenting rain of electro patters down. Three minutes in, there’s an amazing part, where Tennant’s cool, detachment dissolves into a rougher, sneering attitude as he rocks the lyrics: “I was there, caught on Tenth Avenue/You elsewhere with Culver City blues/Then and there I knew that I’d lost you.” The album concludes with Legacy, a finale suitable for an old-time musical with an intro of timpani and orchestral flourish. However, in contrast, there are pulses of spacey synthesizers and repetition of the line “You’ll get over it” to create a sense of the self-hypnosis of bourgeois existence with its immunity to the mediated outside world and its dependence on the very mobiles and computers that enslave. The juxtaposition of this musical style and the lyrical content is once again very Pet Shop Boys; it satirizes by emulating the aesthetic anesthesia that dominates most people’s lives. This theme of compliance yet paranoia in relation to endless surveillence also appears on a Love etc. b-side, We’re All Criminals Now, where they take on CCTV to a lulling, gentle beat. It’s complacency you can dance to.
So it seems that it continues to be a production with Pet Shop Boys. Their aloof, breezy pop confectionery belies a finely planned social statement. With seemingly elusive artifice, they keep erecting false walls and presenting ambiguous one word offerings. Except the walls have mirrors on them and the power of a one word sentence lies in its deceptive simplicity.