Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

You don’t come to the Pet Shop Boys for bite, but still: this sinks its teeth deeper than any other song the band has written. The scenario: a man is angry with his girlfriend. But for the first verse, you’re not even sure she is his girlfriend, all you know is that the man is in love and thanks to her that love is curdling, turning into something awful but undeniable that half-wakes and twists within him. You’d be forgiven, of course, for thinking it was her the man loved, and I’ve used “Can You Forgive Her?” like that when I’ve needed to, looking in the song for that clammy moment of self-recognition, when you realise that your heart’s done the dirty on you, unconsulted and unapologetic: “You’re in love”. The first time the chorus comes round Neil Tennant even sounds sympathetic. The third time and he’s snarling, as disgusted as the girl by his subject’s refusal to admit the obvious, to name the thing that’s stirring inside him.

I might be wrong, but “Can You Forgive Her?” is probably the only top ten pop hit about not wanting to admit to yourself that you’re gay. I’m pointing this out not because I think it subverted the charts or anything, just because it demonstrates what an unexpected and wonderful arena the charts can be. It went top ten because it’s so catchy and so relentless. Every grand orchestral stab is an accusation, a slap in the face; every lull a threat, and the band’s disco throb has never been so unforgiving. Tennant plays up to this – his voice slips easily from taunting not-quite-sympathy to a tone of pitiless reprimand: I think most consciences sound like this. And what he’s singing are some of his subtlest and best lyrics – “Remember when you were more easily led / Behind the cricket pavillion and the bicycle shed?”. The question “Can You Forgive Her?” ultimately asks – can facing up to a truth really be worse than stepping back into a lie? – sounds trite because it’s one that’s been asked so often you don’t think about it – until, of course, you have to. It’s not the question but the way of asking that makes “Can You Forgive Her?” magnificent pop, the kind of song that reminds you just how much the music can do.