There are some artists whose creative output can be broken down into distinct phases. The Pet Shop Boys, I think, are one of these acts. They arrived unexpectedly and set off a tremendous arc in the mid eighties with a string of classics. Everyone has their own favourite eighties PSB moment: what's yours? Domino Dancing? Heart? West End Girls?
I think the PSB are mostly thought of as being singles artists, but really, their mastery of a good hook and a brilliant approach to visuals and imagery was always done in the context of their album arcs.
Back in their first eighties phase, their music, powered by Chris Lowe's cold synths and Neil Tennant's already witty and intelligent lyrics helped them stay ahead of the bell curve through fresh and forward thinking electronic pop. The detached nature of Tennant's lyrical observations seemed to provide a great soundtrack to the vapid eighties. It was a period in which they could do no wrong, and that the ever switched on Tennant coined as being their imperial phase.
By the time the nineties rolled around, the PSB had already busied themselves with being introspective and retrospective. They toured for the first time at the beginning of the nineties, laying the groundwork for their later career, and by that stage were already among the many eighties acts who issued must have compilations of their work, placing a book end on that first career chapter.
In the nineties their output became ever more art pop. The mid nineties PSB were suddenly camper than ever. Still that sense of detachment, helped infinitely by Tennant's vocals, but now with an agenda. They seemed to be priming the pop mainstream with a campness that had never really entered into their eighties imperial chapter by way of retrospective criticism. Remember, that the idea of camp really only entered the mainstream during the cynical nineties.
In the UK and Europe, dance culture was taking hold, and the PSB, with their long term links to dance culture added their own slant to keep them fresh and relevant. The over the top nature of their work during this time was about as plastic as it gets, but, that desire to reclaim the blooming gay imagery of the time led to moments like Very, Go West and Absolutely Fabulous crossing over into the mainstream. It was bonkers gay dance pop with a harder techno edge and a more than subliminal message attached.
Those releases may have been huge with the public, but to my mind, the refinement of the PSB sound didn't happen until 1996's Bilingual. While they experimented and refused to be pigeon holed thereafter, Bilingual was their classic album and one which didn't suffer from any of the uneveness that I feel has marked much of their work ever since.
Hay una discoteca a por acqui? Yes! Bilingual was like a time stamp, a time capsule documenting a changing Europe, even if it was informed and made universal by Latin American rhythms.
Tennant's lyrics on this album are amazing: they spell out, in crystal clear fashion, much of what was taking hold of the newly formed EU at the time, framed through a gay man's point of view.
On Single, he's a British business man, traversing the Schengen borders with ease: ["I'm a player in the continental game/With unlimited expenses to reclaim/ Information's easy/Tapping at my PC"]. But elsewhere, the late nineties gay reality is repeatedly given voice. It finds its form in the combined feelings of fear and persecution and of hope and liberation that otherwise underscored what it meant to be on the threshold of emancipation.
On Discoteca: "I don't speak in anger/though the chances that I've let pass me by and now regret/ I can't forget/ They're haunting me like a score of unpaid debts/ Is it enough/ to live in hope that one day we'll be free without this fear?/ I'm going out and carrying on as normal".
Elsewhere, this POV is even more explicit on Red Letter Day and Metamorphosis. But, by this point in this career, the PSB were capable of making their music universal in nature and not just speaking to the gay masses. Crossover moments like Se a Vide e' (That's the way life is) harnessed the Latin American rhythms that pop audiences loved in the late nineties, and offered up another classic for fans to claim as their own favourite PSB song.
And me? It's a toss up because while the ballad It Always Comes As A Surprise is incredibly moving, my favourite PSB song is fellow Bilingual track Before. It never fails to put me in a good mood. And like the album it comes from it's upbeat and hopeful, but self aware enough to suggest that although life isn't all a bed of roses, hope is always around the corner.
Brilliant album and worth a listen as it has held up really well. Go and rediscover it.
Dave Di Vito is a writer, teacher and former curator.He's also the author of the Vinyl Tiger series and Replace The Sky.
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