tremble clef

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Pet Shop Boys, Fundamental (2006): Part 2

(Part 1 of the review is here. There are still no mp3s in this post, but Into The Groove, Enthusiastic But Mediocre, and Homoecletic, in various posts, all offer tracks.)

But let's go back to the (first of) two most obvious "themes" of the album, beginning with the idea that Fundamental is largely about our current political climate. For longtime fans of the Boys, the fact that Neil and Chris have now made "a political album" must sit uncomfortably. For much of the 80s and 90s, the band heaped scorn -- in their songs ("How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously?") and beyond -- on pop stars, *cough*Bono*cough*, who would deign to lecture listeners about the state of the world; not only are such proclamations, they have suggested, usually vapid, but they are also self-important and self-serving.

Neil and Chris have defended their subsequent turn towards the political (and relatedly, towards being part of the rock establishment) only in broad, general strokes. Regarding "It's Alright," which they covered despite once mocking songs with mindlessly optimistic sentiments ("Our songs say that it's not going to be alright," I remember Chris once asserting, presciently but wrongly), they have suggested that it was a surprising thing to do precisely because we didn't expect it of them. They are, the claim goes, reacting against themselves and their own orthodoxies. This is, of course, not that convincing.

Fundamental, in contrast, implicitly mounts a much more persuasive line of defense. To begin with, much of the album's political targets are at least somewhat novel: an amazing song about ID cards ("Integral"), one about love and nationality, and specifically how immigration laws often disadvantage gay couples ("Indefinite Leave To Remain"), and most pervasively, about the culture of fear ("Luna Park," "Psychological"). In some ways, the album recognizes, with a lot more nuance, where the realm of the political lies, and actually makes arguments about politics. It's not, to put it most bluntly, simply a record filled with platitudes how politicians are evil, or that we just need to get along.

The lead single, "I'm With Stupid," is in fact the least interesting in the way it stretches the definition of the political. A song that reimagines the relationship between Blair and Bush as a gay affair, the track, while amusing, is essentially an illustration that the personal is the political (and further lacks the kind of melancholic remorse that infuses the similarly-themed “I Get Along” from Release). By this point, that does seem like too old of an adage to be interesting, and the fact that George Michael covered similar territory with "Shoot The Dog" -- albeit with more smarm and way less humor -- doesn't help. Also, it's been scientifically proven that songs with the word "stupid" in their choruses are never completely brilliant (see: Culture Club's "The War Song").

However, the politicization of the personal does occur in more intriguing ways across the album as a whole. Since the theme of Fundamental, we keep getting told, is "politics today," we can't help but regard many of the other songs in that light, even when they don't appear immediately to be so. This happens most obviously with the dramatic orchestral ballad "Numb." Composed by Diane Warren (a revelation that I admit I was appalled by), the song first comes across as a straightforward song of heartbreak. (It would have seemed even more so had it appeared, as was the original plan, on PopArt.) But in the context of the new album, its opening lines -- "Don't wanna hear the news/What's going on, what's coming through/I don't wanna know" -- reminds us that it's now a song about the desire or even need to zombify oneself as a way of coping with a world gone mad. It's easy to imagine it being sung by a 911 survivor, for example. Less obviously, this kind of "infection" -- whereby songs that don't seem, or are not, political become so by virtue of being on this album -- happens as well with "Minimal." The song, a clear highlight of the album and the next scheduled single, resists interpretation by virtue of its elliptical lyric, which presents a series of minimal, haikuesque lines much in the style of Release's "The Samurai In Autumn." But some of these lines certainly carry a kind of dark foreboding. "Subliminal/The void is clean/A silver knot for a criminal A cell but not for a criminal." [Edit: The album booklet tells me what the real lyric is, and the correct line in fact supports a little more the following interpretation.] When Neil sings "An empty box/An open space/A single thought/Leaves a trace," I may or may not be the only one paranoid enough to wonder if we're in some sort of torture room where a prisoner's mind is systematically being studied and then washed.

The album therefore enjoys mixed success with respect to the theme of the personal being political, of politics lying in places where we may not always look: it elaborates perhaps a bit too much on the cliché ("I'm With Stupid"), but at least allows it to change the way we consider some of the other songs ("Numb," "Minimal"). In contrast, the notion that fear itself is a political tactic is much less clichéd; here, the Pet Shop Boys demonstrate that what they have to say about "politics today" transcend the tired ramblings of a Bono. While not a particularly shocking revelation to anyone who's read, say, Foucault, the examination of the vested interest our culture has in promoting anxiety at least conveys what might be a relatively new idea to pop listeners.

In fact, a key song on this theme -- the opening track "Psychological" -- turns out to be remarkably complex, and in fact doesn't simply argue for fear as a political tactic. The song, I will admit, is not a particular favorite of mine: while I recognize that its melody is deliberately pounding and monotonous, it doesn't change the fact that it is, well, somewhat pounding and monotonous. (On Fundamentalism, the remix CD that accompanies the special edition of the album, Alter Ego shows that you can keep the thematically-apt thumping while introducing some variation in the arrangement to keep things interesting.) But lyrically, the song might be the sharpest and most fascinating excursus on the topic of fear.

"Psychological" is in some ways direct, concerned as it is with the mental: fear, paranoia, anxiety, psychological warfare. ("I Made My Excuses And Left" begins with almost two full minutes of a musical passage and a distorted voice going "I'm all alone again," which has already puzzled or bored listeners, but in the context of the album, may be just continuing the "voices in my head" trope.) "Psychological" also may or may not be referencing, or addressed to, A Clockwork Orange’s Alex, who is one character I think of when I hear about someone with an "asymmetric haircut and a painted eye."

But something strange happens in the middle eight. In the verse right before, Neil sings: "What's that spilt on the kitchen floor/Who's that knocking on the cellar door/It's psychological." The implication here, as it is on the other verses, is that our paranoid narrator is (over-)interpreting things, seeing dangers where they may be none. The song, after all, is set in a house -- with attics, cellars, kitchens, and a cemetery outside -- that easily map onto, and can be seen as, a metaphor for the human mind or consciousness. But when the middle eight comes, the lyric goes: "Or is it only your imagination/Driving me crazy, crazy, baby, baby, please." That "or" is intensely odd: the song already seems to be suggesting that the bad smell in the air, the knocking on the door, are "psychological" and in your mind. But, just when it seems like we are going to get an alternative explanation ("or"), we instead end up with something that sounds equally psychological: is it just your imagination? It's as if, as one of this blog's brilliant readers already commented to me, reality is no longer an option in this world of ours. Furthermore, the pronouns in the refrain are weirdly mixed: is it your imagination, driving me crazy? Is that even possible? "Psychological" is therefore much less straightfroward than it appears: where we expect a song about how, on one side of the line, there is such a thing as reality, and then, on the other, imagination, psychological drama and warfare, and paranoia, the song instead deconstructs those neat binaries and suggest a much more messed up world. It might be psychological or your imagination; it might be your imagination or my craziness. Roll the dice and choose a side, but there is no safe inside, and no scary outside.

Tomorrow: On the "fundamental" Pet Shop Boys sound, political and musical bombast, and introspection...

8 Comments:

  • I'm now convinced that "Minimal" is about the aesthetic qualities of several of the Abu Ghraib photos, most notably the famous one of the hooded guy on top of a box with a slight crucifixion pose. It's almost as if -- in other words, in my mind it is the case that -- they thought the decision to hire Trevor Horn was explicitly an anti-Bush/Blair move.

    How this rests with the ballads, I have no clue, but I'm intrigued by the brief static-bloop sound at 1:19 in "Indefinite Leave To Remain."

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:15 PM  

  • Interesting. I was thinking of arguing tomorrow that the Pet's hiring of Trevor was secretly worrying to them, because his bombastic productions are potentially...well, I'm getting ahead of myself.

    By Blogger Brittle, at 10:16 PM  

  • Re this, see the first paragraph of http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,14932-2173713,00.html

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:22 PM  

  • Fantastic analysis, especially on Numb and Minimal. I did wonder the relevance of the forementioned songs on the album and your interpretation makes lots of sense. Your name isn't Neil, is it?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:47 AM  

  • Stupid, Stupid, Stupid is Black Grape's stinky second CD. Further proof for your theory.

    By Blogger harvey molloy, at 4:28 PM  

  • No, my name isn't Neil. I've been told to say that the way you can tell me and Neil apart is that I wouldn't have slept with Mr. Stephan*, heh.

    * allegedly

    By Blogger Brittle, at 7:45 PM  

  • On the disorienting "or" that begin's "Psychological"'s chorus: If you take the entire lyric as dealing with being infected with someone else's paranoia I think the middle eight is consistent with the whole. The narrator is twitching at every creaking door before coming to himself for a moment and saying "hold on--or is it not that I'm losing my marbles; is it because of the fears that *you've* put into my head that I'm now jumping at every shadow?"

    May be a slightly heavy-handed interpretation, but it fits with the avowed "war on terror" theme that the song is supposed to have.

    By Anonymous gme, at 3:32 PM  

  • I don't think it's heavy-handed, and makes syntactic sense. But to some extent, even with this interpretation, the song would remain (or become even more) gnarly: if we take the person with the "assymetric haircut and painted eye" as the one the song is about (granted, not an automatic assumption), then the narrator is "outside," commenting on this person's paranoia. And yet, the song then becomes about himself and someone else's imagination then makes him crazy, and he then continues to be the "I" that hears crying babies. At the very least the song collapses any neat subject/object distinctions.

    By Blogger Brittle, at 5:20 PM  

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