Sunday, 22 March 2009

My Pod - Music and Stuff : Pet Shop Boys: Pop Art

Incredibly, it’s now been a solid quarter-century since quirky British pop duo Pet Shop Boys - that's Neil Tennant (the singer) and Chris Lowe (er...the other one) - first found their way into the nation’s charts (and, briefly, hearts) with their debut hit ‘West End Girls’. A string of albums and singles have followed and whilst the band’s commercial fortunes have been steadily declining since 1988 (‘Domino Dancing’ was the first evidence of ‘novelty wearing off’ syndrome) they’ve continued to steadily plug away, churning out an album every three years or so and, now and again, reminding us how good they are at creating a finely-crafted pop melody and irresistible hook, often in a musical climate where such qualities don’t have the currency they once might have. On the eve of the release of their anticipated new album ‘Yes’, produced by Girls Aloud pop gurus Xenomania, who also know a cracking pop tune when they create one, Stuff decided to dig out its copy of ‘Pop Art’ their 2002 two-disc celebration of all their greatest hits and more, just to remind itself of their remarkable, memorable, irritatingly-good body of work over the last 25 years.

What do you think of when (or if) you think of Pet Shop Boys? Their music evokes many things; sleazy London streets, rainy nights, romantic disillusionment, frustrated dreams and ambitions, a certain not-quite-rightness about the human condition. They capture all this in a string of jaunty, romping, thudding electronic pop songs and, now and then, in something mournful and achingly melancholic. ‘Pop Art’ gathers together all these moments in an impressive, wide-reaching trawl through their back catalogue which is as often punctuated by outrageously-camp high NRG disco anthems as it is yearning love songs.

Unusually for ‘best of’s (and ‘Pop Art’ is so much more) it’s not a chronological journey. CD1 – ‘Pop’ – more or less does what it says on the tin. Kicking off with an almost too-gay version of ‘Go West’, the album backtracks to their first run of hits with the racing beat of ‘Suburbia’ with its backdrop of barking dogs and a real sense of urban urgency. ‘Se a Vida e’, from 1993, is one of the pairs’ occasional dabbling with a light latin sound – it’s there again in the aforementioned ‘Domino Dancing’ and their classic Dusty Springfield collaboration ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This’, still sounding fresh and vibrant, rubs shoulders with their energised cover version of ‘Always On My Mind’, the Christmas number one as long ago as 1987, long before Cowell and his creatures took the fun out of the festive top 40. The Boys’ High NRG disco rhythms manage to sound both old-fashioned and yet oddly beyond fashion and tracks like ‘I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing’, ‘New York City Boy’ and ‘Yesterday, When I Was Mad’ (On the ‘Art’ CD) are absolute guilty pleasures to 2009 ears. ‘Love Comes Quickly’, at the time a disappointing follow-up to the brilliant ‘West End Girls’ (to be found on ‘Art’) has grown in stature over the years; forgettable in 1984 it now sounds mellow and considered, foreshadowing later, more contemplative tracks such as ‘Home and Dry’ and ‘Before’, two quirky, naggingly-catchy under-achieving singles from more recent albums. Then there’s ‘It’s A Sin’ and I have to admit its charms always passed me by; I preferred the less bombastic pop of ‘Heart’ and even the near-operatic ‘Left To My Own Devices’.

‘Art’, as well as burying ‘West End Girls’ somewhere in the middle of its running order (possibly to draw attention to less familiar treasures around it) gathers up some forgotten or otherwise undiscovered gems. ‘Can You Forgive Her?’ (from their silly-pointy-hats-in-the-video phase) crackles with witty, acerbic lyrics (a band trademark, their clever lyricism is often overlooked by the sheer pop bravado of their tunes) and who, honestly, could resist songs with titles like ‘I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Any More’ or ‘You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk’ which are as smart and sassy and cheeky as they sound. ‘Art’ also features another early hint, the wistful ‘Rent’ (“I love you, you pay my rent”) as well as the crashing ‘So Hard’ and the 1995 remix of ‘Paninaro’, their ode to wafer-thin Italian street boys who, apparently, were all the fashion in the mid-to-late 1980s. Apparently.

Pet Shop Boys never took the easy route when it came to cover versions and the handful here are, apart from house anthem ‘It’s Aright’, as inspired and insane as you might imagine. The Boys’ feet are firmly on the floor when it comes to ‘Always On My Mind’ and ‘Go West’ and ‘Somewhere’, from ‘West Side Story’, is easily one of the most preposterously over-the-top and yet joyously-uplifting pieces of electro-pop you’re ever likely to wrap your ears around. And who else but Pet Shop Boys could see the connection between U2’s ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ and Andy Williams’ ‘Can’t take My Eyes Off You’ and then fuse them together over a disco beat even Che Guevara and Debussy couldn’t resist?
It’s not disco pop all the way though. I’ve tended to be a bit indifferent about the Boys’ ballads – even now they seem a bit weak and underpowered. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the likes of ‘Jealousy’, ‘I Get Along’ and ‘Liberation’ but the chances are you’ll be pressing the ‘skip’ button more often than you’ll sit and listen to them all the way through.

Pet Shop Boys are 25. The hits are thinner on the ground than they once were and they tend to fly in and out of the charts as their fanbase gets older or loses interest. Their latest single, ‘Love Etc’ is probably their best single in over a decade and it’s just landed in the charts at number 14, likely to be its highest position in a chart still dominated by mid-tempo r’n’b and talent show one-hit wonders. But at least the Boys are still around – older and maybe wiser (they’re both in their fifties now, that’s just not right!) – and they’re still doing what they do best; making great, timeless pop. Stuff’ll be reviewing the new album later in the week, its appetite well and truly whetted by reminding itself of the genius of Pet Shop Boys in the ‘Pop Art’ set – it’s pretty much indispensible for anyone with even a passing interest in throwaway pop music which stands the test of time. It’s brilliant. Pet Shop Boys are brilliant. End of.


FRANK said...

Couldn't have said it better myself. Although, I disagree as to when their music and the tastes of the public parted company.

I would say the writing was on the wall when they released 'Behaviour'. It's a brilliant, mature album but no one, apart from rabid fans, bought the ruddy thing. I drifted away when they released 'Bilingual' and only intermittently paid attention thereafter. However, 'Fundamental' released three years ago was a return to form.

Their latest 'Yes' is the best thing they've done since 'Very' in 93.

Paul Mount said...

I found 'Fundamental' a bit heavy-going myself but agree that, the odd single aside, they were drifting a bit for a few years prior to that. But certainly in terms of raw chart positions (which I was a bit obsessed with in the 80s and 90s until the whole thing became a bit meaningless with the coming of downloads) their 'magic touch' started to wear off in 1988 with 'Domino Dancing' and 'Left To My own Devices', both of which fared disappointingly compared to the run of no 1s they'd enjoyed for the previous 18 months or so. But I'm looking forward to 'Yes' as I love a good pop album and the pre-release buzz, and your ownreview, has been very promising.