Neil Tennant does not have a weak voice but it is a thin one, with a limited range, and a lot of the Pet Shop Boys’ effectiveness comes from how they work with and around that. It means, for example, they can’t often surrender to euphoria like the hi-NRG and house music they’ve drawn from. The voice seems to work best at a distance from the sound, which meant they were regularly labelled ironists. But often the distance isn’t the knowing detachment of the commentator, it’s a felt, painful gap born of self-knowledge. No other pop star I can think of has had so many hit singles about self-reflection: looking back, considering ones life and its successes and failures: “Being Boring”, “Left To My Own Devices”, “Can You Forgive Her”, “Always On My Mind” even. Tennant is like some sort of Marcus Aurelius of pop.
And “It’s A Sin” is his first great exploration of the theme, though for me it’s the least of them. I’ve never quite loved it, though it’s marvellous fun, a brilliant tribute to the more grandiose end of italo disco. Its apocalyptic busy-ness works in the song’s defiant context, and all the samples, thunderclaps, Latin mumbling, synthetic gothickry and so on are great at establishing Tennant’s boyhood as a kind of moral Gormenghast he is still struggling to escape. But at the same time I can feel bludgeoned by it – the narrative flourishes (“They didn’t quite succeed!”) make me gasp and chuckle but they don’t get under my skin the way “Rent” or “Devices” do. Maybe I should just put it down to not being raised Catholic.
This is still a very fine record, though, and one of Tennant’s best performances. The force in his voice comes through fully as he hovers and swoops above the maelstrom of effects: a cold, wrathful tone he usually only shows in flashes. Perhaps you need to know what damnation is to sound quite so damning.