tremble clef

Monday, May 15, 2006

Pet Shop Boys, Fundamental (2006): Part 1

(NB: There are no mp3s in this post.)

In his recent The Word feature on the Pet Shop Boys, Andrew Harrison helpfully reminds us of the two meanings in the title of their new album. The word "fundamental," he notes, "concerns society's retreat into entrenched, irrational beliefs and the Pet Shop Boys' own return to their sonic roots. Handily it also has 'fun' and 'mental' in it." Those two themes -- the album as concerned with fundamentalism, and especially with the culture of fear, and Fundamental as distilling some sort of Pet Shop Boys quintessence -- are as good ways as any to consider, as I will over the next few days, the ninth studio album by one of my favorite groups.

Further, we might notice two more related tidbits about the wordplay. First, the two meanings of the title actually pull in different directions: while "entrenched, irrational beliefs" are presumably negative things that the album observes and implicitly warns against, the "return to sonic roots" is just as clearly, but conversely, figured as a positive trait. The latter is especially so because Fundamental -- if we don't count the Disco 3 or PopArt compilations, or the Battleship Potemkin soundtrack (to which it owes something, but we'll come to that) -- follows on the heels of 2002's Release, which was widely (if unfairly) seen as a dud because its rock textures strayed from the "Pet Shop Boys sound." It would appear that there are good fundamentalisms, and bad fundamentalisms. A question that might arise, therefore, has to do precisely with the relationship between "fundamentalist irrational beliefs" and "the fundamental Pet Shop Boys sound" -- or, to put it another way, between the crazy "mental" state of the world, and the typical "fun" Pet sound. In other words, here's one implicit query posed by the dual meaning of the title, or, really, by the album tout court: to what extent can music save us?

It's an old chestnut of a question, and one that the Pet Shop Boys have previously pondered. Fundamental completes that question mostly with the phrase "…from politics?", a move the Boys have made before (most nakedly on "It's Alright" -- "The year 3000 may still come to pass/But the music shall last/I can hear it on a timeless wavelength/Never dissipating but giving us strength/I hope it's gonna be alright" -- although that's tellingly a song they didn't themselves write, and in some ways were always a bit ambivalent about having recorded). But that question, in its general form, really underwrites much of their work; think, for example, of "Saturday Night Forever," where all the troubles of the preceding songs are forgotten in an orgy of dancing that the song's narrator pretends or hopes will never end. Indeed, on a larger level, the gesture that controls Fundamental -- in which two things exist in some sort of creative tension, and the album is a way to work that out, through music -- is one that's arguably present on many Pet Shop Boys albums: Please (wanting to escape and be free vs. agreeing to be tied down); Very (being in the closet vs. being out); Bilingual (death, especially stemming from AIDS vs. the new life afforded by love); Nightlife (the exhilaration of clubbing vs. its emotional ravages).

But to say that Fundamental formulates a question that has been asked before (or is built around a dynamic that we've seen before), of course, is not to say that it's not a question worth asking, nor to say it won't be asked in different ways this go-round, and certainly not that its answers won't be interestingly different this time.

Tomorrow: But let's go back to the two most obvious "themes" of the album, beginning with the idea that Fundamental is largely about our current political climate...


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