Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Yesterday, when I was mad

with 3 comments

(Note: Earlier this year, I submitted a proposal to the excellent Bloomsbury book series 33 1/3, each volume of which considers a single pop album by a notable musical artist. My submission, on the Pet Shop Boys album Very, made it past the first round, and although it ultimately wasn’t selected for the series, I’m glad to be able to share it here. This is the second part of my original proposal. The first half can be found here.)

If their air of irony was a myth, it’s one that the Pet Shop Boys maintained over the better part of a decade, culminating in the cover of Discography, their first singles collection: Chris Lowe disguised in a hat and sunglasses, Neil Tennant smirking with an arched eyebrow, which, in turn, may be a disguise in itself. Like all album covers, the image is a clue as to how the songs should be read—in this case, in quotation marks, expressed in lyrics that, for all their wit, are often sung in someone else’s voice. Even when real feeling enters the picture, it’s less confessional than foreboding, even sinister: there are impressions of the night, of city streets, of an unspoken crime that may lie in either the past or the future. Above all else, there’s a sense that even the most earnest emotion needs to be qualified at once, as in their lovely cover of “Always On My Mind,” with its final line thrown away, almost inaudibly, in the fadeout: “Maybe I didn’t love you…”

Yet even in the early days, the cracks begin to show. Tennant is still deadpan, but the emotion that his voice denies spills into the music itself, which, over the next three albums, grows increasingly lush and elaborate. As the songs return to their disco roots, the rule about instruments in the studio is bent at first, then trampled upon, with entire orchestras backing up vocals that remain unflappable and remote. The ensuing sequence of albums—Actually, Introspective, and Behavior—is defined by its triangulation between reserve and extravagance, a sense of emotion detected, instantly repressed, and given intricate external forms. This tension is tersely expressed in the lyrics, but flowers forth into something baroque and extravagant in the music, and it’s hard not to connect this externalization, with its emphasis on rococo performance, with the fact, widely suspected by their fans but never openly acknowledged, that Tennant and Lowe are something other than straight.

Then, in 1993, something strange happens. Their fifth album, Very, is released with a peculiar cover, a surface of pebbled orange plastic that implies that something unusual lies within. Inside are pictures of the formerly straightlaced duo in outlandish costumes—dunce caps and jumpsuits and white gloves—worn with expressions of indifference or amusement that might persuade us, at first, that this is just another act. Then we find that the music has also changed. “Can You Forgive Her?” opens the album with what feels, unmistakably, like a statement of intent, with its repressed protagonist mocked by his girlfriend because he dances to disco and doesn’t like rock—a typical theme, but expressed with such intensity, even anger, that it blows open the doors for “I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing” and “Liberation,” the most unguarded love songs that the Pet Shop Boys have ever done.

And there is much more to come. With the sort of confidence and inventiveness that can only emerge from years of restraint, Very unfurls an astonishing series of delights, from the gay fantasia of “Dreaming of the Queen” to the bracing chill of “Yesterday, When I Was Mad,” which eviscerates a decade’s worth of condescending critics. (“You have a certain quality which really is unique / Expressionless, such irony, although your voice is weak…”) “To Speak is a Sin,” written years earlier, is a snapshot of gay bar culture as it no longer exists, a passing memory of sadness in the midst of release. And all these gorgeous moments are gathered together and transcended in “Go West,” a Village People cover that, with its male chorus booming in the background, serves as an emblem for everything the new sound represents, transforming camp into pure, sustained emotion. The result is ravishing and unexpected, and it’s no surprise that many of the duo’s fans took it as a sign that they were coming out at last—as Tennant did, in fact, the following year.

Very remains the Pet Shop Boys’ defining album, and their last great popular success, with more than five million copies sold worldwide. Yet it also presents us with a mystery. At the time, it seemed like a departure, or a fresh start, but it can only be understood in light of the decade of reticence that lay before it. Impersonality, after all, builds reserves of craft that can be turned into extravagance at the proper time, and the story of this album is inseparable from the larger problem of detachment in pop music, or in all of art, which so often privileges the emotional and confessional. It also raises the question of whether the point of detachment is, ultimately, to move beyond it—or through it. Because the title of the album itself implies that what we’re hearing isn’t something new, exactly, but a variation or amplification of what has been here all along, concealed by the mechanical heartbeat of the drum machine.

In the end, synthpop, which can seem so impersonal, is made not by machines, but by real men and women, and the secret it labors so hard to conceal is that the smooth surface of disco can be a front for personality and, sometimes, overwhelming emotion. In many cases, we can only see this in retrospect, after years of reserve have taught an artist to reveal himself in ways we never thought possible. Such detachment begins as a defense mechanism and ends as a way of life, or a training ground, which raises the question of what happens after we cast it aside, and what we lose of ourselves in the process. There’s no easy answer, but even at the time, the Pet Shop Boys hinted at the solution in the name of the accompanying concert tour, which combined the two words at the heart of the problem. It was called, quite simply, Discovery.

3 Responses

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  1. What an excellent essay; thank you.

    yeltnuh

    August 3, 2012 at 10:17 am

  2. My wife saw them play live around the time Very ‘came out’. Neil Tennant emptied the stage, sat down with an acoustic guitar and sang Rent, beautifully and movingly, she says. Seemingly a complete repudiation of synthesiser pop — singer songwriter guitar player! One wonders if that album wasn’t very consciously a capstone to the previous decade.

    And when you look at their back catalogue, you can see that what they wrote were essentially high quality pop songs. Some needed the heavy production jobs to work, but many are great tunes with smart lyrics that one suspects would have been successful if played by two guitars, a bass and drums (okay, and a keyboard). Closer in many ways to the Beatles than to (say) New Order.

    Darren

    August 5, 2012 at 6:13 am

  3. @yeltnuh: Thanks! I only wish I had the chance to turn it into a book…

    @Darren: Exactly—they’re great pop songwriters who just happen to work in the medium of dance music. (Although they also need that kind of dense, layered production to thrive: it’s no accident that their one attempt at a more guitar-driven sound, Release, is also their weakest album of any kind.)

    nevalalee

    August 5, 2012 at 9:09 pm


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