psbrldThis is a reprint from my Tumblr, from a meme where people asked for album reviews. This was for Very, by the Pet Shop Boys (and Bilingual too, as it turns out).

I got an anon asking about Bilingual too, so I’m going to consider them together as the NEIL TENNANT TURNS 40 diptych of albums. There may be an element of projection in this, dear reader. Tennant of course coined the phrase “imperial phase” to describe the moment when you’re pop’s darling, and it ends at – no coincidence this – roughly the point at which house music takes over from the post-disco/hi-NRG dance music the PSBs made as the default sound of clubland. So all their run of albums post Introspective to about Nightlife (maybe that and Release too) are him (and Lowe, who knows!) coming to terms with this.

The first move is easy – prove your songwriting chops and show you’re a serious guy with Behaviour, but Very is the interesting one. The Behaviour singles did OK, but the tide is going out on them, the music has changed under them and Tennant’s in his late 30s – they know they basically have one more shot at making a great pop album which forces its way into the public consciousness, which gets and earns coverage in Smash Hits as well as respectful write-ups in the broadsheets. And Very is their attempt at that album, the last event Pet Shop Boys record.

On one level it’s a really fucking ponderous record! Almost all the songs feel like big statements, it’s ultra-maximal in its sound, even the joke track (”Yesterday When I Was Mad”) feels like ten different productions layered on each other. The first single nicks a title from Trollope (!) and is an ultra-dense psychodrama of denial and self-realisation; the second single is a Village People cover restaged as a high-camp, high-stakes concept single about AIDS and the end of the Soviet Union… they are really not dicking about here. It’s a record that is resolutely focused on being a great album, to the point where you can hear the strain on some of the side 2 tracks – “The Theatre” and “To Speak Is A Sin” are given a really weighty treatment that I’m not sure helps them as songs. But it comes so close to being a triumph, and the ambition of it is glorious and “Go West” and Chris’ little coda song is the best end-of-career mic-drop since, I don’t know, Abbey Road?

Except, of course, their career didn’t end, and life doesn’t end at 40, and on Bilingual Neil Tennant, age 42, can be goofy and corny and liberated and embarrassing again, and just as importantly try new things. I was so disappointed in Bilingual when it came out, so much that I don’t think I’ve heard it since 1996. And it’s an absolute revelation. After the thunder of Very they sound really at ease with themselves. “Before” could sidle up next to George Michael’s “Fastlove” in a grown-up disco. He’s happy to rap terribly on “Metamorphosis”, which is both about and an unashamed enactment of a mid-life crisis. I LOVE him in corny globetrotter mode on “Se A Vida E”, dispensing, you know, actual wisdom! “A Red Letter Day” is a remix away from being one of the great Pet Shop Boys singles. He is comfortable singing in public, “Such a cold winter / It feels as slow as Pinter”. This is someone who does not give very much of a fuck, I think. There are crap tracks – “Saturday Night Forever” is a weak closer, the one which is just him mumbling about Disco Tex and the Sex-O-Lettes is funny if you’re in the right mood, but you very well might not be.

But they’re also pushing forward – the sudden interest in using different rhythms is a way out of a potential creative impasse which works more often than not, and – very alert to potential criticism, as ever – “Discoteca”/”Single” makes itself about tourism and cultural exchange: that dyad is the high point of the album. “Discoteca” is the guilty twilight side of “Single”s brash (and convincing) inhabitation of a global businessman, and having it come first works beautifully, lets the two songs complicate each other. It sounds as if they’re writing with the stage in mind, too – “The Survivors” is a Very throwback but has a theatrical quality that would ripen on Nightlife and after. When I was 23 I heard this record as haunted and tentative. Now I’m 42 myself I hear joy in it, and its inconsistency feels like the inevitable outcome of curiosity.