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 perdu swirl 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 profound—from 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.
Release sounds 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 for—commodifying 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 Bilingual is scarcely Wildean; the love that dare not speak its name sings from the rooftops. Release goes 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 threatening—just 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 hooks—turns out it’s about Tony Blair, ruing the ignominious departure of cabinet minister Peter Mandelson.
Release‘s hilarious showstopper, “The Night I Fell in Love,” rewrites Behavior‘s “Nervously” as masturbatory fantasy. A smitten schoolboy ventures backstage in search of a pop star, who, before ravishing him, cracks, “Hey, your name isn’t Stan, is it?” Another clue if you need it: The morning after a night of passion (“I would rate him a nine out of 10”), they joke “about Dre and his homies.” So the Pets trump Sir Elton in their solution to the Eminem problem, which has vexed gay British elder statesmen as much as American rock critics. In this giddy answer-song, revenge is commensurate with sweetness. The aural gags are to die for: the contented swoon of the backing vocal (“secret lah-vahs”), the bass imitating a cardiogram of a horny ka-thump. MTV News recently played the track for Dr. Dre, who seemed amused but promised a rebuttal. But “he couldn’t have been a nicer bloke”! What does he want—a perfect score?!
In 1996, Jarvis Cocker became a folk hero in the U.K. by puncturing a thin celebrity skin. At the Brit Awards, he stormed the stage as Michael Jackson and a multiracial cast of children were enacting a Christian pageant. On Pulp’s magnificent new album, We Love Life (slated for U.S. release this summer), Jarvis sings, “I love my life,” fortuitously eviscerating vortex-of-attention Julia Roberts, who uttered the same words before proceeding to maul Denzel Washington at the Oscars this year. Jarv means it differently of course. The next line in the song is “It’s the only reason I’m alive.”
Cocker’s ingenious (and supremely generous) method is to articulate crippling existential fears in the form of rousing, tidal anthems—uniting his fellow Xanax poppers in a sort of pagan baptism. A magnum opus four years in the making, We Love Life is, like This Is Hardcore‘s epic cold sweat, a disco-nnection record, well stocked with mis-shapes, mistakes, misfits. But Pulp’s glamorama has never tingled so invitingly, thanks to the full-body massage administered by producer Scott Walker. In godlike genius form, the former boy child invokes a magic-realist soundscape with miraculously shifting horizons.
The album’s environmental theme doesn’t “preach and teach the whole world about ecology” (per a PSB song). Instead, Pulp simply milk the great outdoors for gruesome tableaux. Nature is where messy sex happens and things decay and oh look everything’s gone green. The pastoral croon “Trees” opens with an air-rifle casualty, while a Tippi-haunted aviary offers seduction advice in “Birds in My Garden.”
Tragedy strikes unambiguously on “The Night That Minnie Timperley Died” (Cocker’s fascination with doomed young women is approaching the Lynchian), but throughout, the suggestion of danger is close at hand. The glorious, hip-swaying mega-ballad “Bad Cover Version” is adorned with eerie, dessicated ooh-ooh-ooh-oohs (next to other disappointments like “the Stones since the ’80s,” Cocker throws in his producer’s tortured album maudit: “the second side of ‘Til the Band Comes In“). “Wickerman” undertakes an eight-minute, semi-spoken-word psychogeographic expedition down an urban waterway—the industrial-waste equivalent of Night of the Hunter‘s expressionist river ride. On dumpee sing-along “Bob Lind,” what sounds like the astounding 12-string guitar of Glen Campbell runs riot aboveground, while a black hole of 10 double basses beckons from the lower depths.
In the album’s frightshow centerpiece, “I Love Life,” a queasy Jarvis steadies himself—”breathe in, breathe out,” “look at all these buildings and houses.” As the song internally combusts, his simmering terror boils over into mutinous rage: “You’ve got to fight to the death for the right to live your life!” The Pet Shop Boys put the impulse even more starkly on Release‘s “London,” acknowledging those early acquisitive song titles to boot: “I want to live before I die.” Could anyone possibly think they don’t mean it?
Pet Shop Boys play Hammerstein Ballroom May 21 and 22.