tremble clef

Friday, May 19, 2006

Pet Shop Boys, Fundamental (2006): Part 5

I've been very old-fashioned the past four days, not just because I've been serializing like the Dickens. Despite writing about Fundamental on various levels -- thinking about its place within the entire Pet Shop Boys oeuvre; as an album; individual songs; a specific line of lyric -- I've always treat it as a cohesive record. In this shuffled iDay-and-Age, of course, that's almost a weird approach. Who listens to -- and indeed, who makes -- albums as albums anymore? Furthermore, in thinking about Fundamental this way, I have of course only followed certain narratives, plots, and threads. This album is -- any album would be -- much more.

Here, then, by way of conclusion, are ten more random things about Fundamental:

The special edition of the album comes with a bonus CD of remixes called Fundamentalism, which is kicked off by an exclusive Richard X-produced track called "Fugitive." I'm not that thrilled by the production, frankly, which is a bit pedestrian: the bassline, for example, comes across as just a variation on the one Richard used for his remix of Gwen Stefani's "Cool," which was in turn swiped from Heaven 17's "Let Me Go."

But it's the lyric of the song that has drawn more attention, and justifiably so, since it appears to be written from the point of view of terrorists, or even more specifically, suicide bombers. What fascinates Neil most about the mindsets of such men, as the insistent "you are/were my brother" chorus suggests, is the fraternity on which they depend. In many ways, this is a love song between terrorists. The lyric has a kind of purposeful ambiguity, and in some ways could apply just as much to a pair of gay lovers -- one of whom has died, or is going to die, and the other wishing to follow. So, while a line like "clean, and prepared to be led" could definitely refer to the "ritual cleansing and body-shaving" that the 911 terrorists engaged in, as Wayne Studer suggests, it could secondarily allude to the way dead bodies are generally prepared for the afterlife. Furthermore, in the breakdown, the Boys, in a slightly self-quoting moment, interpolates a stuttering vocoderized effect, and what it conjures up is the catchy hook of "Heart." Perhaps that's another way the track assumes, through association, the aura of a love song.

This isn't to suggest that "Fugitive" is a snickering track that paints terrorism as secretly homoerotic, nudge nudge wink wink. But I do think that Neil, rather, is intrigued by the continuum -- the homosocial continuum, if you will -- between two same-sex male lovers and two political brothers prepared to die for, and with, each other. "Fugitive," in a sense, is cut from the same cloth as the main disc's "I'm With Stupid" (and Release's "I Get Along"): except, tellingly, where Neil mocks the Bush-and-Blair relationship, he is here much more circumspect about the love that binds these fugitives. I would have said that one track is the dark side of the other, but I'm not sure which belongs in which column.

(Subsequent note: the album booklet reveals that the whole album is dedicated to Mahmound Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, the two Iranian teenagers hanged in July 2005; "Fugitive" now seems to me to be possibly written from their perspective.)

No, I don't know about the cover either. I like the neon. I reserve final judgment until I have a physical copy in my hands, since it probably pops more in the flesh, and I'm sure the inner sleeve will contain all kinds of delicious goodness. But it's like it should come with night vision goggles, you know? I would've plumped for another shot, like this one with the lovely wallpaper. Also, Chris=Fun, Neil=Mental, and so there's comedy gold to be had.

I fully accept that many people find or will find "Luna Park" a bit snooze-worthy. That's largely because it's written in a rock ballad idiom: listen to it with that in mind, and you'll see that it's essentially a kind of sequel, melodically speaking, to "Love Is A Catastrophe," and indeed, would have fitted well on Release. It doesn't help that the lyric is a bit nebulous: we can tell that it is another song about the culture of fear, but the specifics are elusive, though the pictures it paints ("Somebody's eating fire we're happy") have the same kind of surreal (or laughable, if you prefer) quality as the Boys' Liza Minnelli song "I Want You Now" ("The men from the circus are juggling with knives").

But I forget and forgive all when Neil's voice splits into two on the chorus: "Thunder, I wonder/A storm will come one day," and especially when the self-harmonies become most sharply anguished on the next lines, "To blow us all away/Like dust on the moon." And later at the 4:10 mark, they take those harmonies apart and present them separately, and it's quite spectacularly bleak. My spine, it is tingled.

He leads, they follow: on the gorgeous middle eight of "Indefinite Leave To Remain," Neil sings a line ("Tell me where I stand? What do you envision?"), and behind him, a beat later, the horn picks up and plays the melody. It's awesome. In the running for "best moment in this song," this is a smidgeon ahead of the beautiful harmony on the line "It may sound superficial."

A song about the "Twentieth Century" that uses an electroclash riff. Is that a joke about how last century that sound is? Heh. While I'm not sure where I fall on the lyric, which I've said lacks a bit of dramatic tension, I'm enamored of how gentle and lulling the song is. It's a somewhat Kings Of Convenience melody. And the song has the kind of funny spikiness that makes me want to declare it this album's "Miserablism." However, I do feel that it could have done with some handclaps, ironic or otherwise. Imagine it.

When I make it onto American Idol, and they have a Diane Warren night again, I can now at least sing "Numb" as my big showstopping number.

Because I am twelve, I giggled when reading the Amazon blurb about how the album includes a "song written by backroom legend Diane Warren." Hee. "Backroom legend." Hee hee HEEE. I've known some backroom legends in my time. Ahem. Anyway, I am today feeling a bit shamed about how this alleged mp3 blog has offered you nothing to sample this past week, but then again I don't want to incur any high profile wrath. But here is Diane Warren's original demo of "Numb." Listen, and then, of course, delete. You'll want to.

The correct answer to the question I posed at the end of my "Resurrectionist" entry is "yes." That song should replace "God Willing." "Psychological" has been struggling to establish a firm foothold in my affections, but it is thematically key to the album. And I love all the ballads, as the above items have established. "The Resurrectionist," in addition to being catchy as all hell, gives the album another pumping track, and if included, would have had us furiously trying to figure out if the Victorian situation it describes is meant as an allegory of some modern-day scenario. (Is Bush...a body snatcher? It obviously seems more like he's the snatchee, or just a snatch, with his mind being the thing they've taken, but, hey, I would have considered it.) Most importantly, "God Willing" is only an instrumental interlude; replacing it with "The Resurrectionist" would more truly give Fundamental twelve tracks, and keep up the Boys' record of issuing albums with an even number of songs. Crucial. Okay, actually that record was already marred when Please opted to constitute "Opportunites (Reprise)" as a stand-alone track on CD, but don't remind me.

"I Made My Excuses And Left" demonstrates how, in the wake of scoring Closer To Heaven and Battleship Potemkin, Neil and Chris know how to use musical motifs to tell a story. I've already suggested that the 2-minute opening, in which Chris apparently sings "I'm all alone again" into his handphone, has a kind of thematic "voices-in-the-head" relevance, but it does more. Notice how the six-note passage recurs at the 3:22 mark. In a chapter straight out of a Henry James novel, Neil has stumbled upon a scene of non-verbal intimacy ("Each of you looked up, but no one said a word"), and understood. He makes his excuses, and he leaves. Then, at this precise point, we hear the passage again, replayed by strings. And so we understand, because the musical passage, via its prior associations, tells us, purely through music, and equally without words: now he will be alone again. It's a moment in which we are emphatically, and empathetically, put in the narrator's place.

Thank you to everyone who has commented on the entries thus far, including those who did so on the earlier "Resurrectionist" post. Many of my thoughts have been inspired by yours, and in the case of esque, with whom I've talked about the Pet Shop Boys for about a decade now, sometimes stolen.

Fundamental is out in the UK this Monday, May 22, and an American release on Rhino will supposedly follow on June 27. Go buy it. It is, after all, the bloody Pet Shop Boys, darlings.


  • Fundamental is out already in Tokyo with the usual Japan-only bonus track. I could not get around to listening to the remixes, as the CD has been playing on repeat so far...

    By Anonymous Arnault, at 2:05 AM  

  • I just got the CD today. I didn't read your comments before, as I wanted to listen to it without prejudice, first.

    I agree with most of your comments, but something struck me:
    The Pet Shop Boys said it would be an album on the actual political situation. But if you strike that comment for a second and listen to it again, it is more about the complete socio-political situation. "I'm with stupid" can be about Bush-Blair, but it could also act as a comment on some situations in the EU.
    "Psychological" can be about the way politicians and voters influence each others visualizations of the world.
    "Indefinite leave to remain" could also be about someone who is out of work and fears to become a social/commercial outcast.

    Of course I have to say, that as a german I listen to it in a different mind set, as our situation is a bit different from others, but for Great Britain I think it would have fitted as well into the beginning of the Thatcher era.

    I guess what I mean to say is, that I have seldom heard an album so full of longing for escapism without reaching it, as this one.

    By Anonymous Sven, at 5:29 AM  

  • Yes, I think to some extent Fundamental is about a universal political situation -- or, if you will, the universe of politics in general. It touches on themes that feature heavily in any political realm: posturing (IWS), internalized and external fear (Psych, Luna Park, Numb), exclusion (ILTR). In a sense those are things that contribute to, or constitute "politics," and therefore applicable to a variety of situations.

    I also really like your succinct characterization, Sven, that the record is "full of longing for escapism without reaching it." I agree totally, and this is perhaps the bleakest PSB album ever. Almost all their albums reach some sort of resolution or balance (albeit uneasy or tenuous) by the end. "As long as I hear your footsteps in the dark, that's all I need." But this album ends with the voice of power (a sexy one, too). Even if they had ended with "Twentieth Century," which is the most "optimistic" song, it wouldn't necessarily have felt earned; if they had ended with "Indefinite," it's still a song, as I have suggested, full of "indefinite" contradictions. No escape!

    Arnault, there's been some confusion about which mix of "Minimal" is by Lobe and which by Tiga (the latter mix is supposed to be exclusive to the Japanese CD), so you will have to clear things for me if you can!

    By Blogger Brittle, at 10:44 AM  

  • Yes. the Tiga mix is the extra track on the Japanese edition together with the long version of im with stupid.
    I will communicate the particularities of the tiga mix through the medium of dance for sure!

    By Anonymous Arnault, at 12:30 PM  

  • How long is the Tiga mix? 5 min plus, or 4:47?

    By Blogger Brittle, at 1:08 PM  

  • The tiga mix is 5 min +. I just checked. The alter ego is my favourite mix of the lot. And its fun to compare the michael Mayer and scissor sisters mixes of flamboyant...

    By Anonymous Arnault, at 1:47 AM  

  • Thanks for the in depth look at the album and the insightful analysis. I've been a PSB fan for ages and this is most complete breakdown of an album I've found yet. Great work.

    By Blogger Daft Monk, at 3:51 AM  

  • Thanks! If the essay was half as awesome as your screen name, I'll be happy.

    By Blogger Brittle, at 4:30 PM  

  • i'm so interested in this dianne warren / psb stuff. I'm not in LOVE with the song, but are we to believe that Warren knows and listens to PSB, somehow I cant see that.

    By Anonymous PopMuse, at 12:21 AM  

  • It is a weird picture. I can maybe see it -- after all, the original release of "West End Girls" was apparently huge in LA before the Boys made it anywhere else. And if Axl Rose is a fan of the PSB, then anything is possible. But, yeah, it is more likely that the Pet-Diane collab is a result of some record company machination.

    By Blogger Brittle, at 12:31 AM  

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