By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
The defining moment in the Pet Shop Boys canon is a poignant backward glance; the corresponding one in Pulp's a stricken vision from the future. On the Pets' 1990 "Being Boring," asChris Lowe orchestrates a temps perduswirl of mixed emotions, Neil Tennant calculates an inventory of loss and remembers a narrow escape from predestined tedium: "I'd bolted through a closing door." Jarvis Cocker recorded "Countdown" in 1992, his band's 14th year of semi-obscurity. It wasn't the first Pulp number to style itself as a Technicolor panic attack, nor would it be the last; midway through, a paralyzing thought lodges in the singer's brain: "The time of my life/I think you came too soon." So much for living in the present.
Though no stranger to regret and anxiety, pop generally draws the line at aging. But Tennant and Cocker were both a seasoned 31 when they finally got to be the creatures that they always meant to be"West End Girls" rallying the markets in '86, "Common People" inciting the masses in '95. Could these late bloomers, who now find themselves confronting the pitfalls of longevity, ever be persuasive trying to forget that nothing lasts forever?
The Boys turn 21 in August (they met while shopping for keyboards on the Kings Road), and a track on their new LP, Release, commemorates the milestone with matter-of-fact candor. As the synths slip into a stoic trance, the haiku-like lyrics approximate a shrug: "It's not as easy as it was/Or as difficult as it could be/For the samurai in autumn." Ditto the samurais' fans. A few songs into the ballad-heavy set, the album title loses its tint of hedonism. The freedom in question is subtler, maybe more profoundfrom expectations and former selves. Can't say we weren't warned: The Pets' previous record, Nightlife, was a concept album about an evening on the town; its most piercing bulletins emerged not from dancefloor euphoria but from the resigned afterglow and fatigued comedown.
We Love Life
Releasesounds at once like a last gasp and a reinvention, which makes it all the more moving. Not that I can claim any objectivity. The Pet Shop Boys have meant the world to me for more than half my life, and it's not a relationship I pretend to be rational about. Please, Actually, and Introspective, each containing one song whose title begins with "I Want," were the best road map any lost '80s kid could've hoped forcommodifying dissent and encoding desire to a disco beat, solving the power equations of sex and industry (a conjunction the Pets of course found deliciously horrible and horribly sad: "I love you/You pay my rent"). They evolved into the belletrists of the burst bubble, expanding their vocabulary to encompass threnody (Behavior's candlelit vigil) and rhapsody (Very's coming-out party).
Nick Hornby writes in About a Boy, "When he got home he put a Pet Shop Boys CD on . . . he wanted to hear people who didn't mean it." This is nonsense, not least because the writer seems unaware that irony is not insincerity, and in this case, what reviewers like to call "ironic distance" is a combination of precision, wit, economy, self-knowledge, theatricality, not smiling in photos, and Issey Miyake. If anything, the problem of late has been a lack of subtlety. The out-and-proud sloganeering that dominates Bilingualis scarcely Wildean; the love that dare not speak its name sings from the rooftops. Releasegoes some way toward reinstating the linguistic nuance (if not the symphonic complexity) of their heyday. Their first self-produced effort, it's not quite the improbable guitar album they were threateningjust some sampled riffs and the rococo trimmings Johnny Marr has contributed to the Pets sound over the years.
Dashed hopes loom large. The first song, "Home and Dry," instantly conjures an expectant mood, as Neil sings of waiting for a frequent-flyer boyfriend to return. The sentiments are benign, banal even ("So my baby's on the road"), but there's a trace of dread in his voice, underscored by the crystalline synth motif that repeats itself in a pitiless loop, as insistent as the arpeggios on "Every Breath You Take." You can practically see him fogging up the window pane. When Chris pipes up toward the end, "We're going home" (nodding to Paul McCartney and Manoel de Oliveira), it's unclear if he's baby or a concerned third party. Tennant affects lovesick solitude again on "E-Mail," opening with a modem screech and the line "Communication's never been as easy as today"which is almost endearing, not unlike your mother flooding your inbox after discovering AOL. The final song, "You Choose," an assertion of free will in matters romantic, serves as a terse, gimlet-eyed rejoinder to the headlong swoon of 1986's "Love Comes Quickly" (not to mention an addendum to Nightlife's "Happiness Is an Option" and a B side to Merritt/Mould's "He Didn't").
The highlights see Tennant pushing through a revolving door of personas, no guise too elusive for a man who once assumed the perspective of a Russian composer pondering the relevance of a propagandistic work as the USSR falls apart. Tennant's longtime Soviet fixation resurfaces in the plaintive "London," which adopts the vantage point of a Russian émigré adrift in a hostile city. "I Get Along," a tentative declaration of independence, evokes premature nostalgia for Oasis-era Britpop, coupling a mild Gallagher swagger with soaring Super Furry Animals hooksturns out it's about Tony Blair, ruing the ignominious departure of cabinet minister Peter Mandelson.