PET SHOP BOYS Bilingual (Parlophone)
The Pet Shop Boys sixth studio album has to be their most difficult so far. After the bright pop of "Very", "Bilingual" returns to the slightly discordant and sinister pastures of "Behaviour" - not that youd know it from the latinesque single "Se A Vida É (Thats The Way Life Is)", although lyrically, if not musically, that song encapsulates the albums essence - a more questioning, downbeat stance that seems to be in vogue amongst the big moneyspinners at the moment (compare George Michaels latest effort with his debut, and this effort with the PSBs contemporaneous "Actually"). "Bilingual" leans heavily on club culture (e.g. "Discoteca", "Electricity" and "Saturday Night Forever") and the themes of progress and change ("Single" and "Metamorphosis") for its lyrical inspiration - even the token traditional track "A Red Letter Day" features The Choral Academy of Moscow. Although not categorisably bad, "Bilingual" doesnt really hang together as an album all that well - it feels too disconnected, more like a random selection of songs. Hopefully their knack for minting fine pop nuggets has only temporarily deserted them.
PET SHOP BOYS / SOPHIE ELLIS-BEXTOR Empress Ballroom, Blackpool 13 July 2010
I’m only vaguely familiar with Ms Ellis-Bextor’s oeuvre , and in the over-reverberant thrum of the Empress Ballroom each perky dance-pop tune tends to sound indistinguishable from those played either side of it. That’s until we reach the disco stormtrooping likes of “Murder On The Dance Floor” and “Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)”, which play the familiar formula but with an intensity cranked up to 11. Ellis-Bextor encourages audience participation at every opportunity, and between songs gushes about how delighted she is to be supporting the Pet Shop Boys. I actually find myself thinking that she demonstrates the exuberant zeal of a “Blue Peter” presenter before, some minutes later, remembering who her mother is.
At the kind of concerts I normally I go to, a band that’s bothered to pin a backdrop with their logo on above the stage is paying rather more than average attention to detail to their presentation. Costume changes are rarely more elaborate than the musicians wiping themselves down with a towel every now and then. So, to say I was unprepared for the spectacle the Pet Shop Boys bring tonight is something of an understatement. A giant wall of white blocks, upon which visuals are screened, is destroyed five songs into the set – something that used to take Pink Floyd an entire evening, remember – during “Building A Wall”, appropriately enough. The blocks are then reassembled in various configurations as required during the show by labcoated technicians. A quartet of dancers appear dressed variously as skyscrapers, with their heads obscured by coloured cubes and as plasticised Power Ranger-type figures, amongst other creations.
There’s some music, too, and even that manages to avoid stifling orthodoxy, whether by mashing up disparate parts of the catalogue or just playing fragments of songs before dashing breathlessly onto something newer and shinier. There are deep cuts for the cognoscenti, including “Why Don’t We Live Together”, “King’s Cross” and vintage b-side “Do I Have To?”. There’s new stuff, because there has to be, the best of which is the frothy, knowing “Did You See Me Coming?”. And, brilliantly, there’s lashings and lashings of some of the best pop music of the last 25 years. The ghost of Dusty Springfield joins in tastefully via the video projections for “What Have I Done To Deserve This?”. “Heart” makes an appropriately pulsing opener, and “Always On My Mind” is illustrated with footage of Blackpool that could have been 50 years old or shot yesterday, this being keyboardist Chris Lowe’s home town. “Left To My Own Devices” remains fabulous even when divested of the studio version’s elaborate orchestration, and “Being Boring” is still one of the most moving songs ever written.
Somewhat undermined by the Ballroom’s unfriendly acoustics , admittedly – and not something I remember being problematic during previous visits here – the sumptuous scope and attention to detail demonstrated throughout their performance almost compensated. It’s rare to see a performance that’s actually a performance, a sensory overload that leaves the spectator stunned and staggered at the effort expended. From my gig-going experience I can only recall The Flaming Lips and maybe Björk going to such lengths – both in this very same venue, oddly enough. A great night out, if you enjoy their music I can’t see how the Pet Shop Boys could fail to delight in concert.
PET SHOP BOYS Nightlife (Parlophone)
“Nightlife”, released in 1999, dates from the long, lingering twilight period between the Pet Shop Boys’ misplacement of their glittery perfect pop mojo sometime around the release of the “Discography” compilation and their rediscovery as Glastonbury-straddling national treasures. Showcasing songs written for a stage musical “Closer To Heaven”, it sounds unmistakeably like a Pet Shop Boys record, but all too often like one that’s had the heart and soul ripped out of it, making the inclusion of a track called “Vampires” seem more than coincidental. Shuffling between a trio of modish producers (Craig Armstrong, Rollo and David Morales) is hardly likely to increase the album’s sense of cohesion. It’s also beset by titles that are often more interesting than the accompanying songs (“I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Any More”, “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk”).
There’s some quite goodness here in the margins, nevertheless, such as “Closer To Heaven”, its lyrics neatly crystallising the album’s problems, although it flounders against the deadweight of Armstrong’s orchestral undertow, which sounds like he’s plagiarising his own “The Space Between Us” album. “I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Any More” could be a song of doomed love as much as it’s a comment on the band’s relationship with their fanbase. “Happiness Is An Option” mixes Soft Cell-style kitchen sink confessional with hints of hip-hop and a Rachmaninov riff, and the quaintly retro title and vocoders of “Radiophonic” are like Daft Punk never happened. “The Only One” is gently tender widescreen balladry - Craig Armstrong’s doing, again – and the almost jazzy “Boy Strange” is populated with such alien sounds as brushed drums and a guitar. Perhaps the album’s most remarkable moment is “In Denial”: a decade earlier a Pet Shop Boys vs. Kylie duet would surely be the stuff of Smash Hits front covers, but here it’s tucked away anonymously in the middle of side two. Sweeping and lovely, brave and bracing, arguably it takes on more responsibility than a pop song might be expected to shoulder. Perhaps its subject matter, with Ms Minogue playing daughter to Neil Tennant’s conflicted gay dad, wasn’t considered to be the stuff of daytime radio playlists…unlike “New York City Boy”, kind of like Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging” wearing a high-NRG catsuit, swollen with Philly strings and horns. Its impact is heightened somewhat by the introspection that clouds some of the rest of the album. Finally, “Footsteps” is almost the kind of ambient-folk-dream-pop The Blue Nile are sometimes misdescribed as.
At the Pet Shop Boys' finest, it’s the tunes that are crammed with preposterousness: think of the way “It’s A Sin” constantly outdoes itself in tacky grandeur, for example. Here, it’s the arrangements that are overblown, and the songs themselves seem to sag under their weight. A mess and a curio it may be, however, but it’s not unenjoyable. It does suffer sonically on vinyl, however: putting 50+ minutes of music on one disc is rarely a good idea, and it certainly isn’t here.