[…continued from last post]
After the five worst Pet Shop Boys songs I’d ever heard, I was astonished when “The Samurai In Autumn” emerged from the speakers. It proffered a subtle, glitchy, rhumba beat over a classic PSB sustained string patch and it had a haunting two note vocal line running through it with a [sampled] tenor sax hook responding to it. It perfectly embodied an unresolved tension between motorik advancement and utter stasis, with the melody line further elaborated by the “sax.” When the sequenced synth entered the mix I knew it was love.
When Neil finally began singing at the 1:12 mark, the song was a quarter done and I had wondered if it was going to be an instrumental. As it turned out, the minimal, haiku-like lyric [a few too many syllables to be an actual haiku] meant that this song was as close to an instrumental as you could get with without actually crossing that line. This was a swooningly great song in the middle of what was shaping up to be a tough, hard slog of a Pet Shop Boys album experience.
I’m not one of those fans who demands “all bangerz” from Pet Shop Boys. While Disco was foundational to them, let’s not forget that even Chris Lowe had admitted that “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” had some good bits in it. In the last they had pivoted gloriously from the dancefloor to attain some of their loftiest artistic heights as with “Behaviour.” But “The Samurai In Autumn” was the first such song here that was completely in the band’s wheelhouse in what was absolutely a stylistic outlier to alien territory for this seasoned band. In that light, it almost felt like I should almost be ashamed for liking this one so much. The funky strut of the instrumental coda belied my guilt.
Then came “Love Is A Catastrophe” and we were back to square one with a track that almost had me waiting to hear the lyrics for “Suicide Is Painless” issue from Mr. Tennant. Tremolo guitar and a leaden tempo made this one seem even longer than it’s nearly five minutes. Guest player Johnny Marr’s tone in his solo was the only interesting thing happening on this po-faced sulker of a song.
Then “Here” hit like a bolt from the blue and once more, the salvage of this album was a going concern. This one actually sounded like a great PSB ballad, with its sustained solemn choral patches, though I had to suppress a grin as it thought nothing of quoting from the climactic ejactulating “woosh” from Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax” at its conclusion.
The next track was a mawkish and mid-seventies as this album would get as “The Night I Fell in Love,” which sounded for all the world like an Anne Murray song injected with incongruous, if gentle, hip hop beats. This was a song no one would listen to for the backing track, which in all honesty, could put one’s teeth on edge. But coupled with this deliberately syrupy brew was a most provocative lyrical payload.
I wasn’t listening too closely at first, but the scenario it offered was that of a young fan sleeping with a hip hop star after a show. There were some very specific details I was picking up on and the next thing I knew, I had to look this one up to see that sort of roman-à-clef was being delivered here. Well, well, well. This was a case of PSB delivering some pointed commentary in the direction of Enimen; someone who I knew almost nothing about. I’ve never heard him. Known he was popular in the Millennial time frame, and was certainly aware of the homophobia he was associated with. Tennant delivered the lyrical knife in the middle eight like a matador taking down a bull.
The final track was as on target to a 1973 Laurel Canyon sound as possible. Gently strummed tremolo guitar, real bass and percussion vied with sampled flutes and glockenspiel and Neil Tennant at his most empathetic. “You Choose” was one of those deceptively willowy tunes that on the third listen one begins paying attention to the lyric only to find a song of quiet devastation was actually being administered.
The scenario of why a love affair might not work out was economically yet incisively put forth; bereft of any anguished braying. His detached, low key, delivery was crucial to the commensurate power of his words’ blows. The resulting three minute ballad was as matter-of-factly shattering as anything I’ve ever heard in the Pet Shop Boys canon. And now I’m in awe of this song.
The 2002 US edition of “Release” was unique in that it has a 2nd disc of additional material similar to the “Further Listening” reissue series that had been released immediately prior to this album. The second disc here had two mixes of the first single with six other songs; some of them B-sides that came out on overseas singles. As there was barely any “there” there on “Home + Day,” the ambient mix sees me in danger of nodding off if I listen while driving. It was already as minimal and reductive a song as they’d ever committed to disc and putting pressure on the brake pedal didn’t work for me.
Unlike its typically fantastic PSB B-side!” Sexy Northerner” was a musical portrait of a rakish type that Neil might observe in Manchester. A beer drinker, but “at least he doesn’t smoke.” The pulsating bassline and a hint of squelchy synths on this one made it a definite keeper. There was a US promo 12″ mix of this that sells for way too much money that I wouldn’t mind hearing. I especially liked the line about wanting an interesting job, like maybe graphic design. Oh, yes, I’m here to tell you it’s all glamor and money!
“Always” hit a reliable PSB ballad target. It was the sort of song that could have been on “Behaviour” if it had cooked in the oven a little longer. A slow version of the title track to their “Closer To Heaven” musical was a little diffuse. A few too many repeated bars of the same musical phrases felt like the sort of reliance on padding that made me go off of PSB remixes in the mid 90s to begin with. I might be more interested in a succinct edit of this airy ballad.
“Nightlife” was another “Home + Dry” B-side of distinction. It was as perky a song as I’ve ever heard from The Boys, with unusual, breathy, falsetto singing from Mr. Tennant. Upbeat of tempo yet the furthest thing from overbearing. The vibe on this one was very inviting and it played like a mantra of clubbing that delivered a subtle euphoria.
“Friendly Fire” was a straightforward piano ballad and sampled strings and oboe. Apparently it was another song from the “Closer To Heaven” musical, possibly given an orchestral treatment here as I’ve picked up that the project was extremely club oriented. Though I have to say that the pithy lyrics were right at home in the subtle melodrama of the musical setting.
I recognized the title of the cover of Raze’s “Break 4 Love” that the band recorded with Tribal House DJ Peter Rauhofer producing. The 3″30 US 7″ mix is what we have here and it’s the first Rauhofer mix I’ve got in the Record Cell that was under nine-twelve minutes long! What was that line about always keep ’em wanting more?
Finally, the answer to the question I hadn’t asked occurred with the Blank+ Jones remix of “Home + Dry.” I had thought that the LP mix was slight and the even more languid Ambient mix was actually soporific! What would be my reaction to a pumped up, high-BPM TurboDisco club version of the song? Uuuuuh, no! This was exactly the sort of dehumanized, piston-pumping, maschinenmusik that put me off of dance music in the 90s.
I have to say that my modus operandi of listening to anything that I plan on reviewing on PPM at least 8-15 times sure paid off in spades for this album, since I’ve got to say that on first blush, apart from the immediately winning gambit of “The Samurai In Autumn,” this was what seemed to be a seriously underwhelming Pet Shop Boys album. Moreover, some of the musical tropes they indulged in here [possibly for the first and last time] were actually repellent to my ear!
We all knew that Neil had a sensitive, possibly hippy side from his early days, but he’d seemed to have gotten over that! Little did we know that he carried it inside, waiting for the latency to manifest. And here it did. When electronic musicians pick up acoustic guitars, it always comes to a bad end. It’s possibly even worse when a lot of what we’re hearing were sampled guitars programmed on synths! A worst case scenario where two wrongs certainly don’t make a right.
But on the upside, this experiment in coloring far outside of the Pet Shop Boys outlines did result in what has now become one of my very favorite songs by the band ever; even in spite of its fraudulent methodologies. “You Choose” was a song with incredible impact that couched an emotional gut punch within its summertime hippy vibe like an iron fist in the proverbial velvet glove.
At first listen I thought that this album was destined for the discard pile, but now, for all of its copious flaws, there’s enough pure gold to tip the scales in the direction of reprieve. So this is the current PSB checklist of what’s in the Record Cell:
- Disco 2
- Closer To Heaven
- Disco 3
- Battleship Potemkin
- Disco 4
- The Most Incredible Thing
That’s still a lot of albums to hear, though the “Disco”series should perhaps be snipped free. I should mention that I consider all of the CDs I do own by PSB to be a remarkably consistent collection of high quality songs, save for much of “Release.” It was clearly the runt of the litter at the end of the day.