tremble clef

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Pet Shop Boys, Fundamental (2006): Part 4

(Here's the story so far, because lord knows we need a scorecard for the ramblings. I started this essay on the Pet Shop Boys by noting how we're invited by the album title to consider at least three things: the idea that the record is about political or cultural fundamentalism; that it sees the Boys returning to their distinctive sound; and therefore, the implicit question of how the two things relate. In assessing the first issue, of the political tone of the album, I have suggested that we need to suspend any kneejerk reactions we might have to a pop band doing "political commentary," especially since Neil and Chris do it in fascinating ways: by allowing the overall context to open up possible new meanings in individual songs, or by refusing to reduce issues to black-or-white options. Going on to think about the question of a "Pet Shop Boys sound," I elaborated on my opening contention that this pulls in a different direction from the theme of political fundamentalism: not just because it is portrayed as a "good" direction (opposed to the negativity of political irrationality), but also because the "Pet Shop Boys sound" is not necessarily the best medium by which to mount the kind of critique that the Boys presumably desire. But the Boys surprise us, precisely by recognizing, on some level, the uncomfortably close alignment between political and musical bombast, and embracing it.)

It might be more accurate to characterize Fundamental, not just as a record about our "current political climate," but also about the things we do to deal with such insanity. The album to some extent offers a short catalogue of coping mechanisms. "Numb," I've already implied, could be read as a tale of self-zombification: only by withdrawing from the world, numbing oneself, can the narrator cope with fear and terror. If "Casanova In Hell" is about aging, or political decline, then it might be counselling, simply speaking, a kind of patience: you can't stay hard forever, and all empires fall. But look at us: we're prematurely talking about losing the erection before getting it up. What of sex? What of pleasure? What of fun? We've already noticed how the album is made up of the "fun" and the "mental" (much like DiscoVery, or PopArt). Does one offer a salve for the other? Can sun, sex, sin help us deal with this world?

Perhaps befitting Neil's Catholic upbringing, the Pet Shop Boys have always had an ambivalent relationship to pleasure. Despite their employment of musical genres that are typically (if wrongheadedly) thought of as mindlessly pleasureable (disco, Hi-NRG, dance, pop), it's hard to think of a Pet moment that is unreservedly hedonistic. Please may start with tracks advocating escape, and move through songs that express unbridled desire -- although even "I Want A Lover" is haunted by the things one needs to navigate on the way to having a lover: drinking, fighting -- but it ends with the mature resignation of "Why Don't We Live Together?" (one of their most underappreciated tracks ever). "Go West" of course has that melancholic French horn (not to mention a death postscript), while "Saturday Night Forever" is unable to reverse the ominous anxiety collected over the previous eleven tracks on Bilingual. Heck, even Closer To Heaven's "Hedonism": if it seems to cast its lot with pleasure, it would only be because it's unencumbered by a lyric, and in the context of the show, in which lives are mostly destroyed or disillusioned by and in clubland, it's certainly a mere bittersweet manifesto.

On Fundamental, the designated track about hedonism is "The Sodom and Gomorrah Show," the most melodically dextrous track, and one which recalls Frankie Goes To Hollywood's "Welcome To The Pleasure Dome" (not just because Trevor Horn of course produced both, but because of its topic). A gloriously over-the-top stomper in which our narrator hero experiences a transformative moment when he is invited to the tantalizing title show, one obvious way to read the lyric is as a coming-out narrative. And with Proustian and Forsterian references like "I lived a quiet life, a stranger to champagne/I never dared to venture out to cities of the plain," and "You've got to love to learn to live/Where angels fear to tread," it's pretty inevitable. But Neil is also right to protest, as he has done in the press, that the relevance and context of the song is larger, arguing as it does for the value of refusing to be sheltered, to go out and live life. In the framework of the album, therefore, "Sodom" is the polar opposite of "Numb," and embodifies a resistance to the culture of fear. Go out and play. Or else the terrorists win.

And yet, the song is not completely unreserved about making that recommendation. It's interesting, first of all, to note that the track is the second on the album. In immediately following the table-setting "Psychological," the solution suggested by "Sodom" thereby comes across, not as the final solution to political fundamentalism, but merely as the first line of defense. (And like many first lines, inadequate or likely to fail.)

Although this initial step is nothing to sneeze at: one of the heartening things about the Pet Shop Boys is the way they've increasingly moved away from seeing "coming out" as the end of the narrative. At the start, and through the middle, of their career, it almost always was: think, for example, of Please, which takes ten tracks to get its comely ass to the gay bar ("Later Tonight"), or the way Behaviour needs eight songs before it gets its courage up to make cruisy eyes at a guy ("Nervously"); the film It Couldn't Happen Here, or its stage version, the Performance tour (they die? No: Neil and Chris acquire the kind of bitchin' angel wings that gay boys kill for on Halloween, and go to bed together); and how Very only makes it to San Francisco at the very end. But on Bilingual, not only was the coming-out song ("Metamorphosis") the least coy it had ever been, but, as track 3, it came close to kicking off the story (which, unfortunately, was partly a story of AIDS and death). On Fundamental, if "Sodom" presents pleasure -- attaintable only by coming-, or going-out -- as a coping mechanism, it is one that is the be-all, but not the end-all. In other words: come out. Embrace life. Be alive with pleasure. But it won't be enough: the problems of the world won't be solved by this. But still, come out. It is still a necessary first step in your "politicization."

The pleasures of "Sodom" (hello, googlers!) don't therefore provide a definitive hedge against fundamentalism, and its place in the running order reflects this. And within the song, there are more indications that, for Chris and Neil, hedonism and "fun" can't fully help us. As the song goes on, it becomes clearer that we're dealing with a retrospective narration: "I did it and I don't regret the day/Even now I think of how you turned to me to say/Are you gonna go, to the Sodom and Gomorrah show?" There is nothing explicit in these lines to suggest that a loss has occurred, but it's hard for me to shake the feeling that they do commemorate a moment when the show has vanished, or become irretrievable in some way. It's only a "once-in-a-lifetime production." (And of course, in an age where gay or even just sexual establishments continue to get shut down or zoned into submission, the concept is hardly without a real world counterpart.) In fact, what is lost may not even be the "show" itself, but the act -- named twice in the song, and therefore revealed as the true act the song loves and memoralizes -- when "you call," or "turned to me to say." Lately, you haven't been able to turn to me very much. For me, it's very much like the devastating moment in "Being Boring," wherein Neil confesses: "I never dreamt that I would get to be, the creature that I always meant to be/But I thought in spite of dreams you'd be sitting somewhere here with me." There's no direct denotation that "you" have died, but the spooky connotation lingers. Likewise, although "The Sodom and Gomorrah Show" offers sex, pleasure, hedonism as ways of escaping the pressures of the world, it is nevertheless a song that carries just a hint that such an escape -- or more importantly, the moment when your friend or lover holds your hand and enfolds you with the graceful offer of such an opportunity -- is no longer tenable.

And what of love? If "fun" -- in the form of sex, pleasure, hedonism -- only offers us partial refuge against the "mental," what of love? Does peace of mind lie in love? We shouldn't confuse sex with love, you know. At least that's what my mom told me.

I don't know about love. Fundamental, perhaps, doesn't know about love. Its two love songs, when all is said and done, aren't unequivocal love songs. In "I Made My Excuses And Left," the narrator loves but isn't loved in return: in a deft stroke, the entire dynamic of the relationship is made clear (that love object has a "crowded court," and therefore not wanting of suitors, so the narrator can only be a "supplicant"). He can only leave. On "Indefinite Leave To Remain," our narrator is another supplicant, asking, either a nation that doesn't seem to love him, or a lover who is ambivalent, to decide on love. But even if that decision should come, it would only be one riddled with internal contradictions: he would only get "indefinite leave to remain." A stay to not go. Indefinitely: which is good, right, since it's neverending? Unless it's just open-ended and uncertain, and therefore bad. The solution -- to paraphrase "Twentieth Century," another track that might be considered a love song -- may or may not be worse than the problem. Stay. Go. Leave. Remain. Indefinitely. Permanently. Indeterminately. Love, as usual, gives us everything and nothing.

Tomorrow, on "Oh my God, is he still talking?!": Closing thoughts on everything else, from "Fugitive" to Diane Warren to the musical moments that constrict the heart...


  • Fab, as always -- do a week on every album!

    I think that you've put your finger on part of why "Twentieth Century" is so problematic for so many people, although it happens to be one of my favorite tracks on the album. If part of the genius of PSB, as you say, is its realization that politics is like love/sex -- that it gives everything at one moment and then catastrophically falls apart the next into minor chords and askew gurgles -- then "Twentieth Century" is a problem. The middle eight ("Stay with me/This century/Together we're better") seems *too* rosy, or even ... too decisional.

    I'd like to think that the middle eight of "Twentieth Century" gets undone by the final verse, which counsels against certainty, leaving the sentiment of the middle eight as a utopian dream. And the most uplifting songs in the PSB canon may have marks of this hesitance as well. Now, right now, your love is liberation. But tomorrow, who knows?

    By Anonymous esque, at 8:28 PM  

  • I think I'll have to save that project for my retirement, attractive as it sounds (to me, at least; I think everyone else might be bored of PSB week).

    You may be right about "Twentieth Century": too uncharacteristically optimistic (the lyrical hook comes close to being a cliche, and one almost wonders if it is -- or even wishes for it to be -- meant tongue-in-cheekily). Or, to sharpen the point, there's not enough of a tension in the song: as you note, many PSB tracks present a middle eight that undercuts the rest of the song (classic example: "Miserablism"), but it doesn't quite happen here. But if the last verse is indeed where the undercutting takes place on "Twentieth Century" -- I'm still a bit undecided if it is -- then maybe the Boys can be applauded for trying a different structure.

    Also, "Minor Chords and Askew Gurgles" will be the name of my next collection of poems. Look for it in bookstores this fall, folks.

    By Blogger Brittle, at 12:53 AM  

  • I was listening to Twentieth Century the other day and realised it makes perfect sense if you'd interpret the lyrics as dealing with the European Union. The EU started as a project to prevent something like WOII happening again. It is, in a way, 'the lesson we learned from the 20th century'. Although its going through some problematic time, its solution (i.e. dissolution) would be worse than those problems.
    Somewhere around Bilingual Neil said that he and Chris were supporters of the idea of European integration. Listen to the lyrics: it could be an argument against an adherent of the more and more popular anti-eu sentiments in Great Brittain (and all through Europe, for that matter).
    moenan_moenan 'at'

    By Anonymous Munan, at 4:29 PM  

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