Pet Shop Boys: Yes

Well, the last time I raised my head above the parapet long enough to post a review of something involving the Pet Shop Boys, I was roundly criticised for expressing an opinion when I didn’t myself have a lengthy string of hits behind me.  Notwithstanding that, I’ve decided to grab the bull by the horns and post my (entirely subjective and wholly personal) review of the band’s new album, Yes, which was released today.  For those of you who don’t know, I’m pretty much an obsessive fan, but I’m going to do my best to avoid either ‘OMG!  Everything they do is just too, too special!’ fawning, or it’s flip-side, typical fan-boy ‘Worst.  Album.  Ever.’ grumping.

Overall, my impression of this album is that it doesn’t deserve to be praised to the skies, but it certainly doesn’t deserve to be comprehensively damned either.  There are some tracks on this album I really don’t like, and I’m fairly unconvinced by the contributions provided by Xenomania (producers, and co-writers of three songs), but there are tracks here that I think are brilliant.  In fact there’s one song in particular that I think is a candidate for best ever Pet Shop Boys song.  I guess you’ll just have to keep reading if you want to find out which song that is…  (And, actually, you’ll have to read for a while – the better stuff is towards the end of the album.)

Love etc.  – This is probably the only song on which the PSB and Xenomania collaboration properly works.  From almost the first note, the song is recognisably by the PSB, but it also sounds slightly different to anything they’ve ever done before.  The arrangement is very slick – so slick, in fact, that it’s in danger of sounding completely soulless.  It’s saved from that by the backing vocals (provided in part by Chris Lowe, which is always nice to hear), and a slightly ragged feel to the rhythm.  I don’t mind this song, but I don’t love it either, and it feels entirely disposable.

All Over the World  – Oh dear, already things have taken a turn for the worse.  Initially, the problem is that there’s too much happening.  Neil Tennant’s opening ‘Oh-way-oh-away-oh’, the quotation from Tchaikovsky (and, despite what everyone’s saying, it’s not a sample – a sample is an excerpt from a pre-existing recording dropped into a song; this, on the other hand, has clearly been specially recorded), and the main backing track for the song just don’t fit with each other, or together.  If it was a two-way rather than a three-way affair, the tension between them might be productive, but as it is there’s just too much going on, and the result is a mess.  This is particularly a shame as the Tchaikovsky element is wholly unnecessary and could easily have been got rid of – apart from anything else, referencing classical music on pop records is just a really naff thing to do.

The awkwardness of the opening of the song is made worse by the fact that the percussion/ drums just don’t work.  This is something that the PSB usually get absolutely right – their percussion tracks are always carefully worked out and integrate perfectly into the song – so I can only assume that the slapdash, press-start-and-leave-the-same-pattern-running-forever sound here and elsewhere on the album comes courtesy of Xenomania.  To me, it sounds as though they’ve been following a ‘top-down’ approach to production, and rather than laying down the bass and percussion first, in order to make sure that the rhythm section locks together properly and gives the song a good foundation, they’ve added the drums almost as an afterthought, with the result that the whole song is weakened.

The chorus is catchy enough, but I’m irritated that this is now the second song in a row where Neil Tennant has sung about ‘boys and girls’ rather than ‘boys and boys’ or ‘girls and girls’.  I know he’s always written songs from a variety of viewpoints, and I wouldn’t want to deny him the right to do that, but this is starting to sound more like an attempt to slam the closet door after the singer’s bolted.  If even gay pop stars won’t write pop songs for gay people, who the hell will?

Beautiful People  – Apparently, this song was originally written to be the theme tune for the Jonathan Harvey sitcom Beautiful People, but the producers rejected it.  Well, I can see why.  I’ve never been a fan of the PSB’s attempts to write mid-tempo ballads (which is why I always disliked the album Behaviour).  This song has lacklustre lyrics, a plodding tempo, and awful, generic string arrangements.  Pretty much the only positive things I can find to say about the song are that it opens with a nice jangly strum on Johnny Marr’s guitar, and that it does, eventually, stop.

Did You See Me Coming?  – (Hurrah!  Another song to add to my list of songs containing double-entendres…)

Again, the song starts with some nice guitar courtesy of Mrs Marr’s boy Johnny.  In fact, it’s mildly disappointing when the rest of the instrumentation comes in – for those first, precious, few seconds it sounds positively Smiths-ian.  In particular, the relentlessly thumping drumbeat is a shame.  Without it, and with the guitar mixed a lot higher, I think this song had a chance of being beautiful, summery, carefree pop.  As it is, it’s still good, but it stays firmly tethered to the ground.  This is a classic example of Xenomania actively ruining something that could have been great.

Musically, the song reminds me of ‘One and One Make Five’ from Very.  I’m not sure why, but I think it must be the chord progression, as the arrangement is very different.  Either way, this is a rare time when I don’t mind coming across a band doing an obvious re-write of an earlier song, because the new version is so much better.  Even the rubbish middle8/bridge (‘I’m not superstitious, or really religious/ Just to thyself be true/ But now I think I’m starting to believe in fate/ Since it delivered you’ – yuck!) isn’t enough to completely destroy it.  Like I say, it’s a good song – but, without Xenomania’s intervention, it would have been better.

Vulnerable  – This is Neil Tennant’s attempt to tell us that, despite his debonair, elegant image, underneath it all he’s really just as vulnerable and needy as we all are.  In that sense, it’s an attempt to re-tread the ground covered by the astonishingly brilliant ‘For All of Us’.  Musically, this is another bland mid-tempo ballad that wouldn’t have sounded out of place nestling up next to ‘My October Symphony’ on Behaviour, and, although it never had a chance of achieving greatness, it’s another song that’s been done a disservice by Xenomania’s relentless thump-thump-thump arrangement.

Probably the biggest problem with the song, though, is Tennant’s performance.  He just doesn’t sound vulnerable as he sings it, and there’s nothing in the music to suggest loneliness or vulnerability either.  There’s no sense of the emotion of the lyric being reflected in the song, and that’s a real shame.  The presence of emotion in the PSB’s version of ‘For All of Us’ (the song is from their musical Closer to Heaven) is a part of what makes that song so affecting.  It’s total absence here is what makes this song rather dull.

More than a Dream  – Well, this is where my irritation with Xenomania reaches its peak.  This song could have been brilliant, but it’s been ruined by ‘cut & paste’ production.  I heard an interview with the band where Neil Tennant said that this song had been on the verge of being abandoned when they realised that it could be revitalised by combining it with material from another song.  Now, there were two ways of achieving this.  One was to go back to the beginning and re-work the whole track in light of the new ideas.  The other was to cut & paste the different elements together, then use a couple of half-hearted overdubs to try and disguise the joins.  Guess which option Xenomania went for?

Of course it’s possible to work like this when you’re recording.  It always has been, even if in the old days it would have taken a razor blade and glue to physically cut & paste magnetic tape.  It’s a lot easier now everything can be done with a few clicks on a laptop.  But it still isn’t worth doing, because the results always sound so shoddy.  Most people realise this within about 15 minutes of sitting down with some drag-and-drop music creation software – yes, you can create something that synchs up and works on the most basic level, but it doesn’t sound anything like an actual song.  Obviously, Xenomania are a lot more adept at masking the joins than some cheap software is, but there’s no getting round the fact that the song is clearly made up of four separate elements, and you can still tell where the joins come.

This is a crying shame, because a lot of the song (especially the bridge/ middle 8) really is good.  It’s made even worse by the fact that there’s a remix – ‘More Than a Dream (Magical Dub)’ – on the bonus cd Etc. that comes with the limited edition of the album, and it shows how good the material is when it’s handled by people who actually understand how to build a song.  The remix is beautiful, especially in the way it handles the understated grandeur of the middle 8.  By comparison, the version of the song on the main album, even though it’s still good, leaves me cold.  I think this shows how badly Xenomania’s bad decisions have affected this album.

Building a Wall  – This song is obviously intended as a political statement: ‘I’m building a wall/ A fine wall,/ Not so much to keep you out/ More to keep me in’.  I would guess the song is about the proliferation of ‘security measures’ that we’re told are being introduced to keep us safe, but seem to be more effective at spying on the bulk of the population than they are at controlling terrorists.  Pet Shop Boys have always been political, and I’m pleased to see them continuing that tradition, but it has to be said this isn’t their finest political song – it’s quite hard to work out what they actually mean.

Musically, elements of the song are very similar to their remix of ‘Sorry’ by Madonna.  Also, if I’m allowed to put my ‘pretentious arsehole’ hat on for a moment, this seems to be a conscious attempt to write something in the style of a Bertolt Brecht/ Kurt Weill song (which is appropriate for a political statement, I guess).  In particular, the way Chris’ vocals humorously undermine the points Neil is trying to make seems like a Brechtian alienation technique.  This maybe isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds – I seem to remember that the Pet Shop Boys covered a Brecht/ Weill song (‘What Keeps Mankind Alive’, possibly?) as a B-side for one of the singles from Very.

King of Rome  – Another Behaviour-ish ballad, entirely inoffensive and unutterably bland.  At least Neil Tennant sings it like it means something to him, although it’s not clear why.

Pandemonium  – Now, this is more like it.  This is one half of what the PSB do – ridiculously catchy pop songs – and it’s done almost to perfection here.  If you listen to this song and find that you don’t have an idiot grin plastered across your face then you should probably make an appointment with a doctor to check that you haven’t died without realising it.  Even here, the arrangement isn’t perfect – there needs to be some kind of feature after the chorus to break things up before the return to the verse – but it’s still an excellent song.  In fact, this should have been the first single – I guarantee it would have charted higher than ‘Love etc’ has managed.  (No. 14 – which still isn’t bad for a pop band in their 50s).

The Way It Used to Be  – And this is the other half of what the Pet Shop Boys do – melancholy electronica.  This song is, without doubt, the stand out highlight of the album.  It’s brilliant – a hymn to lost love, and loneliness, and the quiet, unspoken desperation the Pet Shop Boys have spent a career so effortlessly evoking.  Everything about this song is perfect – writing, arrangement, production, Neil Tennant’s ice-cold performance, everything.  Johnny Marr is in evidence again, with a guitar part so subtle you could almost miss it, but which is exquisitely perfect in every regard.  Musically, the song is a little reminiscent of ‘The Day Before You Came’, which was Abba’s last single.

I’m not ashamed to say this song made me sob like a baby the first time I heard it, and there are tears in my eyes now just thinking about it.  Songs like this are why I love the Pet Shop Boys so much, and if this isn’t the best song the PSB have ever recorded, then it’s within the top five.  The only false note is a single out-of-place ‘ping’ placed at the very end of the track – it should have been left to fade away into silence, and it should have closed the album.

Legacy  – Instead that honour goes to this song.  PSB have a tradition of not wanting to end their albums with depressing songs, and that means things often end up swimming in a sea of bathos.  Bilingual, for example, doesn’t end with the wonderful ‘To Step Aside’ but with ‘Saturday Night Forever’, which is one of the worst songs they’ve ever recorded.  ‘Legacy’, I’m pleased to say, isn’t anything like that bad.  In fact, it’s rather good.

It sounds, particularly in terms of its arrangement, like a conscious attempt to emulate Stephen Sondheim, especially the brief hurdy-gurdy/ fairground section towards the end.  The song opens with Tony Blair’s last words to the house of commons (‘That’s it – The End.’), so it’s tempting to think of this as another political song.  The band seem to be playing up to that idea with the title – the song doesn’t have a chorus as such, but the most commonly repeated words are ‘you’ll get over it’, so I would ordinarily have expected that to be the title – but I think it’s a slight misdirection.

There’s certainly political material included – ‘They’re raising an army/ In the North/ From York Minster/ To the firth of Forth’ sounds to me like a reference to historical events like the Northern Uprising of 1569, and a suggestion that we’re currently in need of similarly radical action.  But, on a more fundamental level, I think the song is concerned with endings and closures of all kinds, personal as well as political, and it works rather well.  It’s one of the rare times when PSB’s attempts to be ‘more than just a pop band’ don’t leave them sounding pretentious and overblown.

Overall, then, this is not, I’m afraid a classic PSB album.  It’s better than their last effort, Fundamental – somehow, Trevor Horn managed to mess-up the arrangements and production on that album even worse than Xenomania have here – but definitely not good enough to be ranked among their best work.  But it’s not as bad as that makes it sound.

The average level of the songs isn’t great, but the best tracks – most notably, ‘Pandemonium’ and ‘The Way It Used to Be’ – are brilliant, and even the worst songs  – ‘King of Rome’ and ‘Vulnerable – will stand up to repeated listening, which is not something that can be said for the worst songs on some other PSB albums.  In terms of musical sound, it’s hard to name a previous album that this is most like, but in terms of the overall ‘feel’ of the album, the way it contains flashes of genius somewhat lost amongst more mediocre surroundings, it puts me in mind of my initial reaction to Bilingual, and, over the 13 years since that album was released, I’ve come to rate it more and more highly.  So who knows what I’ll make of Yes by the time we get to 2022?

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3 Responses to Pet Shop Boys: Yes

  1. cb says:

    Just because the post looked lonely! I have a kind of detached regard of the PSB – they write good songs though. I wasn’t planning on getting the album though, I have to say.. maybe it will grow on me (hopefully not literally – that would be scary).

  2. hypervolt says:

    I kinda cooled off PSB for a while – the last few releases have all been kinda mediocre. But I decided to give this album a go.

    Agree that Pandemonium is a great song. ‘Did you see me coming’ sounds kinda like what PSB would’ve done for Dusty Springfield… Other than those two, I actually like ‘More than a dream’ a lot, it kinda reminded me of ‘Was it worth it?’ With PSB’s signature melancholy melodies mixed in together with an upbeat dance track (and positive lyrics, for a change…. :))

    I am intrigued to hear the remix of ‘More than a dream’ you mentioned now….

  3. Pingback: Review: Pet Shop Boys, Elysium | Aethelread the Unread

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