Aethelread’s Great Album Countdown #2: Pet Shop Boys, Nightlife

So, my series of posts counting down my favourite albums of all time is continuing (and it is, as ever, inspired by Danny Baker’s recent TV show). Over the last five days, I’ve let you know about the albums I rank from seven to three which are, in order: Eels’ Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, REM’s Up, Lightning Seeds’ Jollification, Chumbawamba’s Anarchy and Kingmaker’s Sleepwalking. That means today I have reached number two, and thus I can reveal (although it’s not much of a revelation, given that it’s named in the title of the post…) that my second-favourite album of all time is…

Pet Shop Boys, Nightlife.

Album cover

Album cover

Released in 1999, Nightlife was Pet Shop Boys’ seventh studio album. It reached number 7 in the UK charts. (On the topic of chart trivia, a song from this album became the first new release to enter the top 10 singles chart in the new millennium, entering at number 8 on 15th January 2000.) Three of the songs from this album appeared in different versions in the band’s 2001 stage musical, Closer to Heaven.

Nightlife is a concept album, although it wears its concept lightly. All the songs take place at night (or during an early dawn, experienced as the last part of a night out). They examine different aspects of personal relationships, and track them as they develop at night. The album contrasts the giddy euphoria of initial meetings in glamorous nightclubs with the weary disillusionment of late-night arguments in suburban bedrooms. It suggests that we venture out into the dark seeking love and companionship, but that we remain mostly alone – or, at best, co-dependent. For all that, it resolves into a kind of peace: we may not find perfect happiness, but we can still find a kind of contentment. Musically, the album runs a wide gamut, capturing the sound of everything from the then-contemporary club scene to a pedal steel guitar (and even what sounds to me like a sitar). Nightlife is also a brilliantly sequenced album – every track follows perfectly from its predecessor and leads effortlessly into its successor, and no track feels out of place despite the overall diversity.

The album opens with two tracks that highlight Pet Shop Boys’ in their most club-friendly colours. ‘For your own good’ opens with brooding synthesised strings suggesting that this may be a typically mordant Pet Shop Boys song, but then abruptly broadens out into an intense, uplifting keyboard riff that belies the slightly earnest lyric. ‘Closer to Heaven’ pushes the uplift even further, coming as close as the Pet Shop Boys ever have to the pure adrenaline rush of euphoric hedonism (though, of course, being a Pet Shop Boys song, there’s a worm in the bud: the assertion the singer has ‘never been closer to heaven’ is immediately undercut with the words ‘never been so far away’). This is not – as Pet Shop Boys dance-orientated songs tend to be – a pop song inflected with the rhythms and instrumentation of dance: this is the Pet Shop Boys doing a straightforward dance track, unencumbered by their usual attempt to maintain an ironic distance, and it’s wonderful for it.

One other track on the album matches the euphoric rush of these openers. The song ‘Radiophonic’ – besides earning an automatic one million geek points for name-checking the BBC’s in-house department for experimental electronic music – has an everybody-wave-your-hands-in-the-air riff that’s well suited to the sweet simplicity of it’s chorus – ‘I think I’m in love’. In general, though, having established the bright lights and glamour of a club, the album heads off into the night to explore darker themes.

Principal amongst these darker songs, for me, is ‘Vampires’. By sequence, it’s the central song on the album (sixth of twelve), and it’s also thematically central: an eerie song, with disorientating and discordant strings, capturing the unsettling strangeness of a dream. These days, of course, vampires are everywhere in pop culture, and familiarity has diminished them. Back in 1999 they were less ubiquitous, and more obviously gothic, which made the suburban banality of the “vampires” the Pet Shop Boys sing about more frightening. These are, in any case, metaphorical vampires, not “real” ones. They’re vampires because they exist in a joyless, co-dependent relationship that sucks the life-force out of both participants: ‘I’ll do what you want, and then can I do it to you?’ Such a relationship is also vampiric because it’s no longer alive, but hasn’t been allowed to die: it’s an undead love affair. This is a disturbingly creepy song, one that lives with you long after you’ve heard it, and co-opts gothic imagery to emphasise the strangeness and sadness of something that’s instantly recognisable – we all know couples made up of people so scared of being alone that they’ve stayed together long after they should have split.

A similar spirit of world-weariness is present on other songs. ‘I don’t know what you want but I can’t give it anymore’ is a devastatingly sad song, sung from the perspective of a man giving up on a love he still feels (‘you’re breaking my heart’) because he can’t understand how to make his lover happy. As with many Pet Shop Boys songs, the sadness is not immediately apparent – on its surface it might seem like not much more than ennui – but it stands ready to engulf you the moment you pay attention. One of the great strengths of this album is its extraordinary subtlety, the sense that it contains depths upon depths: the closer you listen, the more you will hear.

‘You only tell me you love me when you’re drunk’ is in a similar register, although in this case it’s the sadness of recognising that the love you feel isn’t reciprocated, or is reciprocated by an emotional cripple who will never be able to express his emotion openly. This is also one of Neil Tennant’s post-closet lyrics, I think. After he came out, he started writing about gay themes with the kind of acute observation that he had previously been applying to more general themes – in this case, what it’s like to be in love with someone who has so deeply internalised the homophobia of the world that he finds it almost impossible to admit his feelings, except maybe when he’s drunk. Though that’s not all the song’s about – it’s also about loving someone who’s addicted to the drama of a tempestuous relationship (‘what a performance tonight, should I react?’).

The same kind of understated lyrical skills are also on abundant display in the final track of the album: the glorious, seductive, sad, nervous, hopeful ‘Footsteps’. Who but the Pet Shop Boys could make car alarms sound this beautiful – ‘afar in the dark, abandoned cars suddenly start up an anxious sound’? Or so perfectly encapsulate the yearning desire for the physical closeness of another:

When loneliness induces fear

like waves against a ramshackle pier,

when thunder and rain

scar the windowpane,

once again, I want you near

Nightlife is a sequence of songs built round a central idea: the different ways people interact under the cover of darkness, and under the insomniac glare of artificial light. It’s by turns euphoric and elegiac, and spans from the heights of elation to the depths of despair. By a series of vignettes, it covers the whole subject of romance: from the heady joy of falling in love to the pain of splitting up; and from the death-in-life of co-dependency to the consolations of enduring companionship. It moves between genres and styles of music – from euphoric house music to that country music staple, a pedal steel guitar, in only three songs – without ever jarring, and while encompassing that diversity within a coherent whole. Nightlife is small enough to feel intimate, and large enough to contain worlds. That epic intimacy, coupled with the excellence of every song on it, is what makes this a truly great album.

So there you have it: my second-favourite album of all time is Nightlife, by Pet Shop Boys. Tomorrow it will be time for me to reveal my all-time favourite (although, truth be told, my preferences among all my top four are marginal – in a different mood, I might have ranked any one of them first). Regular readers may have realised that all three of the bands you know I like have already been accounted for, which makes my top choice that tiny bit more unpredictable. See you back here tomorrow for the final revelation…

(Click here to read other entries in Aethelread’s Great Album Countdown.)

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  1. Pingback: Radio 2 listeners’ favourite albums of all time | Aethelread the Unread

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