John Petkovic sings in multiple voices on Cobra Verde’s Nightlife: punk-metal howler, psychedelic flake, Nick Cave–like Goth, wired-for-sound new waver, limp-lipped glamour boy, indie wimp. Except for the punk-metal howler, which veers way too close to Jesus Lizard territory and inhabits too much space here, I like all of Petkovic’s voices, but mainly I’m a fan of his glittering surprises—he’s affecting in his affectedness, and the cheap thrills he looks for and finds are the same cheap thrills I hear in early Roxy Music. The most lurid parts of early Roxy, that is: the frenetic futuristic greaseballs of “Re-Make/Re-Model,” “The Strand,” and “Would You Believe,” all as close in spirit and sound to Sha-Na-Na and Grease as they are to the Velvets and Casablanca. I remember the first time my brother played me “Would You Believe” from Roxy’s first album, and we couldn’t believe it; we laughed, first nervously, then uproariously, during the fast part where Bryan Ferry goes leapin’ lounge lizards into a register he can’t reach and hasn’t (sadly) been foolish enough to try again. There isn’t enough of this side of Petkovic on Nightlife—the final stanzas of “Crashing in a Plane,” where he really does the strand-ski, is the best example—but maybe that’s the point: Those moments hit hard precisely because they don’t hit too often. Other wise, he’d be Devo.
Petkovic’s no new kid on the block. He’s been mining similar sleazoid territory since 1983, first with indie almost-darlings Death of Samantha, then starting in ’94 with Cobra Verde. Nightlife, CV’s fourth album, is his most assured yet: Once merely a brave and eccentric underground dweller (one of his catchier earlier tunes is called “Underpants”), he finally sounds like more than a footnote in the next official guide to alternative rock—Nightlife is a fairly radical departure for a group with legitimate claim as one of 147 groups from the Cleveland area with connections to Guided by Voices. The CD’s official press release describes the album as an “avant-glam experiment,” and the cover photo by Ziggy chronicler Mick Rock is a brilliantly calculated coup, featuring an androgynous Johnny Thunders look-alike in red high heels and a tawdry blond babe—Mick Ronson’s daughter—holding a champagne bottle in a deliberately phallic gesture, both sprawled out in the back of a limousine. It could be a still from Velvet Goldmine or an ad for vodka, but either way it taps into the milieu.
Which is—well, I’m not so sure. The cover’s about as specific as Nightlife gets to actually describing a nightlife; in other words, I have no idea what Petkovic’s singing about and I bet he doesn’t either (Richard Butler: “You don’t have a point of view/You don’t have to say you do”). But looking for specificity at night time (when it’s too dark to see everything any way) seems beside the point; it’s more exciting to cruise not knowing what you’re looking for or what you’ll find than it is to cruise with an agenda in mind. (I’m not much of a cruiser myself, but I wholeheartedly abide by this principle when it comes to surfing the Net—at least in principle I do.) Anyway, the nightlife is there in the music, in the way an essentially illogical sax answers the propulsive Stooges rhythm of each line in “Crashing in a Plane” with a more hysterical blast of hot air every time; it’s there in the way the word “forever” gets sucked up into the singer’s mind on the line “Baby, you can love me for…ever” from “One Step Away From Myself”; it’s even there in “Tourist,” where Petkovic dons a wide-brimmed hat and a cape, reinventing himself as a Banshee in search of strawberry girls or a Bunnyman in search of crocodiles. Pretension and silliness abound all over Nightlife (right down to the credits: Don Depew is credited as playing “studio”), and with any luck at all aspiring four-track kids across the nation will soon be scouring used bins for Silverhead albums and their mothers’ closets for silver stilettos.
— The fact that the Pet Shop Boys also have a new album out called Nightlife makes 1999 the coolest year for nightlife synchronicity since 1979, when the Cars followed up Alicia Bridges’s Top 40 hit, “I Love the Nightlife (Disco ‘Round),” with their own disco-wave classic, “Let’s Go,” proclaiming, “I love the nightlife, baby!” (It’s also worth noting that Pet Shopper Neil Tennant is an ex-journalist for Smash Hits, while John Petkovic is a current journalist for Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, and that neither Alicia Bridges nor Ric Ocasek has ever written a regular column for a newspaper or magazine.) Unfortunately, almost all the pretension and silliness has gone out of the Pet Shop Boys’ music. If it seems surprising that I should be surprised by this, it’s worth remembering that it’s only been six years since Very, the noisiest, catchiest, funniest, most glamorous, most moving music of their career. It’s probably no coincidence that Very came out just around the time that Neil came out (though even he dead panned in an interview that such a revelation could hardly have shocked anyone); obviously, a gay subtext had always been present in their music for anyone who looked for it, but on Very there was a new directness in Tennant’s feelings and in his voice. “Liberation,” a put-your-head-on-my-shoulder love song (though still not gender-specific), would’ve sounded merely corny in the context of Please or Introspective.
The most liberating thing about Nightlife is how it looks on paper. As with ’96’s similarly disappointing Bilingual (whose massive drum battalions at least added a veneer of epic scale to the music), they’ve increased the colors on their palette, doing things you wouldn’t normally expect the Pet Shop Boys to do: There’s a duet with Kylie Minogue, an acoustic ballad (can you say “acoustic ballad,” Pet Shop Boys fans?), and a pretty flourish of Hawaiian guitar that suggests a heretofore untapped Don Ho influence. What they fail to throw into the smorgasbord is any sense of urgency, euphoria (“Closer to Heaven” almost gets there; they should’ve dropped the ho-hum verses), even dread. Ironically, the Pet Shop Boys have turned into the anonymous disco machine they’ve long half-joked about becoming.
The two songs I like on Nightlife are the two songs that suggest a nightlife—more specifically, in fact, than anything on CV’s Nightlife. “New York City Boy” is the only great dance track on the record, a throwaway that happens to be the second—after “Go West”—Village People tribute they’ve done (during the bridge you fully expect them to launch right into “Y.M.C.A.”), and the first Ramones one. I cringed when I first heard the song’s opening lines—”When you’re a boy, some days are tough/lying on your bed playing punk rock and stuff” (it’s the “and stuff” that jarred me more than the “punk rock”)—until I realized that it was a fan letter from Neil to Dee Dee (whose “53rd and 3rd” was “West End Girls” 10 years earlier on a different street corner). Even better is the schmaltzy nightclub ambience of “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk.” Who else but Neil Tennant (except maybe George Jones) could come up with a title like that and proceed to make it such a graceful heartbreaker? It’s the sharpest Pet Shop Boys love inversion since “I love you/You pay my rent,” and Tennant’s vocal is nothing short of miraculous, hitting more vulnerable spots than I thought possible for a singer with such a limited range. I think the Pet Shop Boys them selves should get drunk and say some stupid things before they make another record; they might even want to take a few sips from Cobra Verde’s champagne bottle.
Motel, c/o Autotonic, Box 41246, Memphis, TN 38174. Pet Shop Boys play Hammerstein Ballroom November 12.