tremble clef

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Pet Shop Boys, Fundamental (2006): Part 3

(Although this post, about a key "sound" of the album and the problems associated with it, probably makes sense on its own, it is part of a multi-post review of Fundamental, of which part 1 is here, and part 2 here.)

There is a school of thought, though a minority one, that says that the worst thing to have happened to the Pet Shop Boys was the huge success of, firstly, "It's A Sin," and, subsequently, "Go West." These two songs embody what many -- including, I would suggest, Neil and Chris themselves -- have come to think of, in a very specific sense, as the fundamental Pet Shop Boys sound.

"It's A Sin" marked that sound's inaugural appearance: a gargantuan slab of Gothic Eurodisco, the song threw everything and the kitchen sink at listeners, from a space launch countdown to Catholic Latin mutterings. It's easy to forget that, for a distinctive sound, this one arrived reasonably late, featured only on the duo's second album Actually. (It's easy to forget, furthermore, that the Boys' first hit, "West End Girls," is a sleek, moody number that isn't in this mold, and something they haven't really attempted to replicate, except maybe in "DJ Culture.")

But what makes "It's A Sin" the fundamental Pet sound is that it seems to serve as a bit of a crutch for Neil and Chris. When 1990's Behaviour flopped commercially -- of course, it has come to be regarded by hardcore fans as the Boys' finest album -- what Neil and Chris did was, first, to add a stomping (but hasty: to this day it bothers me to hear Neil's pronunciation of "can't" oscillate from British to American from verse to verse) cover of "Where The Streets Have No Name (I Can't Take My Eyes Off You)." And then, more concertedly, to regroup and storm back with an album that was nakedly "Very Pet Shop Boys," and apply the "It's A Sin" sonic template -- albeit with a bit less Gothic and a bit more gay Hi-NRG camp -- to an old Village People track. It did the trick, creating as it did a #2 UK hit and what is undoubtedly the most recognizable hit of the Boys' post-imperial phase. Since then, the Boys have called on that Hi-NRG sound each time they've felt in need of commercial rejuvenation. So, when Bilingual disappointed sales-wise, they tried, first of all, with "A Red Letter Day" (complete with rousing Russian choir), and then again with a busy cover of "Somewhere." When neither had the desired effect, they made another energetic album whose conquering track was supposed to be "New York City Boy" (in which the Hi-NRG was transposed, or pushed forwards, onto late 70s disco).

There are some people -- the minority viewpoint I referred to at the start, though I'm not telling you if I'm in that group -- who wish, abstractly, that the Boys would stop relying on this tactic, especially since it has increasingly become less and less fail-safe, but let's stay on topic: when Fundamental and its musical direction was announced, therefore, it appeared to fit this pattern. Release had been a "departure" from the Pet sound; people mumbled that it felt old, autumnal, tired (often ignoring the fact that it was in fact an album about aging; if the Boys had added the b-side "Always," the theme would have been even more obvious. It's also no surprise that the new album's very moving "Casanova In Hell," about mortal and perhaps political decline -- although it's best not to think about the Viagra-needing Casanova as a proxy for Blair -- seems to have been written shortly after). Fundamental, the story went, would show us there's life yet.

This of course meant that we've been primed to expect the return of the thundering stomper: as I noted in part 1, this has been presented, like Very, as one meaning of the album title. It therefore comes as a bit of surprise to find that five of the album's twelve tracks are ballads -- six if you include the mid-tempo "Twentieth Century," which, sung and arranged with a remarkable gentleness, feels like a ballad. The true blue Hi-NRG stompers only number three -- "The Sodom and Gomorrah Show," "I'm With Stupid," "Integral" -- while the remaining two tracks ("Psychological" and "Minimal") are what Popjustice called "sort of vibey electro things."

But from another perspective, it makes sense that the fun and mentalist stompers are quite few in number. Once the album was conceived as a political one, the "fundamental Pet Shop Boys sound" came up against a problem. The problem isn't even that it's a crutch of a sound, as I began by suggesting, but that this sound might be too "up" to serve as a vehicle for political commentary, or, to put it even more bluntly, has a beat that can be almost fascistic. We are of course speaking with some degree of generality here, and it's always dangerous to characterize a "sound" as having any intrinsic qualities (let alone moral ones). But perhaps we only have to think about "Go West," and how it lent itself so easily to a video that featured strapping marching men carrying flags, and to backing vocals by an army of them, to understand how much that kind of thundering beat walks a line, on the other side of which lies something like the anthems for marching Hitler youth.

It's therefore interesting to read the Sunday Times article that a reader unearthed (in yesterday's comment box, thereby proving how awesomely interactive blogging about music can be). "Reunited with the producer Trevor Horn for the first time since 1988's magisterial 'Left to My Own Devices,'" Dan Cairns writes, "Pet Shop Boys encountered an unexpected problem. The man responsible for overblown epics such as 'Relax' and 'Poison Arrow' wasn't giving them the Horn they were looking for. So they didn't have to rein him in? 'Au contraire,' answers Neil Tennant. 'We were trying to rein him out.'" What I find most fascinating about that opening paragraph is Cairns' assumption, which remains unexplicated, that Horn needed to be "reined in." Why would Cairns think so? Perhaps he recognizes precisely what I have suggested above: on an album about politics, grandiose productions such as Horn's have the potential to come across as aligned, not with protest or critique; they have the potential, instead, to sound like they are the sound of power. It is after all no accident that "bombast" -- a word that perfectly describes the sound of Pet Shop Boys songs ranging from "It's A Sin" to "Go West" to "Delusions Of Grandeur" -- makes as much sense when prefaced by either the adjective "musical" or "political." Don't drop sonic bombs, baby.

Neil, the Times article goes on to suggest, was archly unworried. For good reason: even though the fundamental Pet sound, I've argued, walks a fine line, the Boys, however, have always been remarkably canny about walking it. On "It's A Sin," they fully embrace the fascistic beat, turning Neil into a kind of sinner-supplicant before the sound of the apocalypse that is Judgment Day. On "Go West," they masterfully add a French horn, as many have recognized, in order to suggest a kind of regretful recognition that the (gay) utopia which the song dreams of is now unattainable. And on "Delusions Of Grandeur" and "Shameless," the lyrics allows them precisely to assume, and even revel in, such delusions and shamelessness.

That same canniness is on show in the thundering songs off of Fundamental. "I'm With Stupid" and "Integral," most obviously, are both sung in character (Predictable Critics: "Oh, the Pet Shop Boys are being ironic again!"). In the case of the latter, the narrator is clearly aligned with power, singing as he does from the viewpoint of the bureaucrat hellbent on convincing the populace of the necessity of ID cards: "If you've done nothing wrong, you've got nothing to fear/If you've something to hide, you shouldn't even be here." Neil's vocals are slightly vocoderized on the refrain -- "One world/One life/One chance/One reason" -- but the menace is of course totally apt: seductive, but scary in that seductiveness. The song, in other words, is not -- would have worked less well as -- a hectoring critique of the way our lives are increasing converted to "information" and the resulting loss of privacy. It instead dramatizes, to exaggerate a little, what fascistic power sounds like, and in doing so reminds us of why it must be avoided. (All that awaits this brilliant song is only a video treatment along the lines of the "1984" ad Ridley Scott did for Apple, or, if Madonna hadn't gotten in there first, one based on Metropolis.) In "Integral," the Boys silence critics who indeed thought that their "fundamental" Hi-NRG sound was overused, by finding a(nother) perfect --- "puuurrfect" -- conceit with which to exploit that sound.

Tomorrow: Returning to the question of whether music can save us, and why it matters that "The Sodom and Gomorrah Show" is track #2...


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