Pet Shop Boys
When you have been let down by a prize passion, you have several choices in how to respond. You can refuse to admit the dip in quality and cling desperately to the belief that it is all going according to the master plan of the artist; let’s call that “the Buffy option.” You can sadly conclude that a once-favored artist has “jumped the shark,” and decide you no longer need to buy their new product as soon as it hits the shelves. Or, you can really examine yourself and the path you’re on, and ask, “has this band changed…or have I?”
This brings me to Pet Shop Boys. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are to my ’80s-fied ears the finest songwriting duo techno-pop has produced. Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys of OMD would be their closest rivals, but for sheer consistency Neil and Chris have them beat. Martin Fry and Mark White made a beauty stab at it with ABC, but they couldn’t sustain it for more than a couple of albums, and not in a row.
About 10-15 years ago, Tennant neatly defined the approach of the Pet Shop Boys as “a way of being in a pop group without shaming yourself.” Their best songs have an entertaining veneer over a substance of self-expression. Although it is too simplistic to say that Lowe is responsible for the one while Tennant is responsible for the other, it’ll do for a workable definition of their different strengths.
On their top records, this fuses in such a way that Lowe is the set designer for Tennant’s theatrical pieces, each lesser without the other. Every handful of years, however, they put out an album that seems tilted too far towards the singer/songwriter side, and these (e.g. Very and Release) have been their least creatively successful.
Each has also been followed by at least one attempt to balance the scales, so just as Disco 2 came after Very, Disco 3 succeeds Release. Each volume of the Disco series is a little different from the last, though obviously they are all intended for the dance floor. Where the first two were collections of remixes of recent singles and a couple of B-sides, Disco 3 is almost an alternate album. Over two-thirds of the material here did not appear on the original Release. Unfortunately, it’s not much better than that which did; only a couple of songs come near the heights of which Pet Shop Boys are capable.
The Pets are extremely unlikely to ever make one of those dodgy “let’s pay homage to the music we liked when we started by recording a lot of covers” albums. Certainly not now that Erasure’s done it. But if they ever did, “Try it (I’m in love with a married man)” would be the kind of thing we could expect to hear. This cover of a 1983 song by Bobby “O”, the writer/producer who gave Neil and Chris their big break, has that kind of spiky analog synth sound that makes me weak. It also fits nicely as the third part (a prequel, if you will) to what I have come to think of as the Pet Shop Boys “adultery trilogy,” along with “In Private” and “Rent.” “Sexy Northerner” first appeared on a bonus disc available with some copies of Release. Here in a “Superchumbo Mix,” it is the most interesting piece of pure club/dance music on the record, minimalist and almost abstract in it’s sound. “Home and Dry” was the song most worth salvaging from the original Release, but that only makes it the best of a bad bunch. A fine if somewhat derivative melody (don’t think about “With Or Without You”) married to an unmemorable lyric, it gains nothing from the instantly dated Blank and Jones Mix.
The rest is generic techno-dance-pop, no worse but no better than most. It’s nothing like a tragedy (certainly not from the standpoint of what’s going on in the world as I write this), but fans of every and all stripes know that there’s a certain kind of sadness when a fave lets you down. When their latest offering causes that little voice in the back of your head to say “Oh, dear…this really isn’t very good at all, is it?” The trouble is, usually by that time you’ve invested quite a lot (both emotionally and financially) in the idea that this particular fave of yours is above the rest, and it’s a sobering experience to realize this truth: They have good days, and they have bad days. Just like you.