Jun 15

It’s A Metamorphosis

FT/28 comments • 1,911 views

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.


  1. 1
    Phil on 10 Jun 2015 #

    I’d resisted CDs up till Very; I effectively bought a CD player for the sake of playing the album that came in *that* case. Only PSBs album I ever got, too, apart from the three essential compilations.

  2. 2
    Chelovek na lune on 10 Jun 2015 #

    “Very” was in large part the soundtrack of my first year at university. (Had been an indie kid while in the 6th form, barely out of ULU or Brixton Academy on Friday nights aged 17…. but moving from London to St Andrews put an end to all that, and indeed to any more than a cursory acquaintance with popular culture for the years I spent on the gloriously windswept and delightfully remote shore of North East Fife).

    Now I think about it, it may (after “The Lexicon of Love”) may be the second finest pop album of my lifetime, a certain theatricality (I know…) and broadness of theme (more explicitly or unambiguously political in places than ABC, but well, that was there in them too, if you looked…). To speak is a sin…. Glorious, sweeping, powerful, more than pop, while actually being poppier than imperial phase PSBs…

    “Bilingual” I barely know. Will spotify it….

  3. 3
    DietMondrian on 11 Jun 2015 #

    Tom, thanks to this I’m off to listen to Bilingual for the first time this century.

    Having loved – loved! – Pet Shop Boys up to an including Behaviour, I thought their sound started to curdle with Very, and something went badly wrong with Bilingual (though I liked lead-off single Before).

    My memory is that I simply stopped listening to them as soon as I heard Metamorphosis, which I thought was the first bad song they’d released, though a flick through my records reveals I was still buying their singles up to and including I Don’t Know What You Want…, the first single off the next album, Nightlife. (There were always good B-sides to be heard.) So maybe it was the single after that, New York City Boy, that was the final nail.

    I can’t think of another band that fell so far out of my affections. I finally got around to buying Nightlife last year, having decided to try catching up to see if I’d missed anything. It’s…OK.

  4. 4
    Tom on 11 Jun 2015 #

    I have not actually heard a PSB album in full since Nightlife either, Dietmondrian! Though I intend to catch up, since I really enjoyed the two tracks I did hear off the last one.

  5. 5
    Andrew on 12 Jun 2015 #

    There are some fantastic bits on each of the post-Nightlife albums, which I would rank like this: Yes > Electric > Fundamental > Elysium > Release

    Highlights: ‘Indefinite Leave to Remain’, ‘Integral’, ‘All Over the World’, ‘Did You See Me Coming?’, ‘Pandemonium’, ‘Leaving’, ‘Breathing Space’, ‘Bolsy’, ‘The Last to Die’ (a Springsteen cover) and ‘Thursday’

  6. 6
    Tommy Mack on 15 Jun 2015 #

    I remember being fascinated by the knobbly orange jewel case of Very in motorway service shops throughout Europe as we drove down to Umbria in my Dad’s knackered Citroen 2CV. The price of a CD album was well beyond my reach back then. I did get a 3rd generation tape copy of Now 26 which was as much hiss as music and Go West (which I didn’t realise was a cover until many years later) became a massive favourite, my brother and I persuading my dad to crank the volume to speaker rattling proportions on our journey to school (this must have been later as the 2CV didn’t have a tape deck)

    I’d consider myself an ultra-casual PSBs fan. Ultra-casual in that I’ve only knowingly heard a handful of their most famous tracks but definitely a fan in that I’ve greatly enjoyed what little I have heard. Don’t know why I’ve never delved any further, just listening to other stuff I guess, though I think I was, perversely, also put off a bit by that album they did in the early 2000s with the guitar solos and what have you.

    I was going to post something on the Always On My Mind thread about it being a good choice for ‘greatest of all time’. Not that it’s remotely near my all time favourite but it feels suitably iconic but in an enjoyable way not in a Stairway to Heaven sort of way. If someone said PSBs AOMM was their favourite record of all time, I could imagine lots of good reasons for it being so, compared to that MTV poll that had, for the greatest song of all time, Goo Goo Dolls’ Iris which I don’t believe I’ve ever heard…

  7. 7
    flahr on 16 Jun 2015 #

    “If someone said PSBs AOMM was their favourite record of all time, I could imagine lots of good reasons for it being so, compared to that MTV poll that had, for the greatest song of all time, Goo Goo Dolls’ Iris which I don’t believe I’ve ever heard…”

    If you haven’t heard it that would probably explain why you can’t imagine any reasons for it being someone’s favourite record of all time.

  8. 8
    Tommy Mack on 16 Jun 2015 #

    @7: The point I was trying to make is that I’m surprised that many people chose Iris as their favourite song of all time when I’ve never heard it despite listening to a fair bit of rock radio over the years where you might expect to hear the song if it was that popular. I’ve never actively sought out AOMM either but I’ve heard that plenty of places. Obviously I don’t expect universal popularity to acquiesce to my own personal tastes (even though it clearly should)

    The only other thing I know about The Goo Goo Dolls is that their bassist threw his vintage Fender bass in a swimming pool and it still worked (according to a brief interview in a Fender catalogue I had)

  9. 9
    Tommy Mack on 16 Jun 2015 #

    @me #8 edit after the fact: Re: Iris not being on the radio, rather than just ‘popular’ I mean, beyond just popularity, having some sort of one-off qualities that make a song a favourite for lots of people and also get frequent airplay on oldies radio stations/used on film soundtracks, TV etc.

  10. 10
    flahr on 16 Jun 2015 #

    378 vs. 99 this past month, I make it; I can say with some degree of confidence that most people of my age I talk to on a regular basis would recognise “Iris”, whereas if I didn’t read Popular I don’t believe I would ever have heard AIMM in my life. I appreciate that of course the plural of anecdote is not data.

    I personally prefer AIMM to “Iris”, probably (the former is on my MP3 player and the latter isn’t, although I don’t think my Official Ex-Favourite Song of All Time is on my MP3 player at the moment so I don’t know how much that counts for), and don’t mean any value judgement by anything here, just that it seemed oddly rockist to contrast this with some allegedly popular rubbish that I’ve never bloody heard of so it can’t be all that bloody good.

    tl;dr: Blah blah fuck Eli Pariser blah blah microculture blah blah fuck Simon Reynolds blah blah

  11. 11
    flahr on 16 Jun 2015 #

    I did like read and enjoy the OP as well, honest, I promise.

  12. 12
    Tommy Mack on 16 Jun 2015 #

    @10. “it seemed oddly rockist to contrast this with some allegedly popular rubbish that I’ve never bloody heard of so it can’t be all that bloody good.”

    That’s not what I meant, honest! Just that AOMM was an unpredicted ending I should have seen coming (wasn’t Tom himself said in an old essay the PSBs were the ultimate FT band?) whereas Iris was a Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull ending (for me) I wasn’t expecting it and when it came it made no sense TO ME. I can totally accept that’s because I misjudged the song’s popularity which surprises me in itself: we’re not talking about a particularly obscure song or genre here. Tbh we’re not comparing like with like here: a small group of maverick writers’ individual choice vs a big media survey. I certainly wasn’t casting judgment on Iris, since I’ve never heard it!

    For comparison, when Robbie’s Millennium came in at #2 on Channel 4’s Millennium thing, my reaction was as snobbish as you’d imagine. So I am the bad guy, just not in exactly the way you thought!

    BTW, surely ” I’ve never bloody heard of so it can’t be all that bloody good.” is more popist or indeed populist than rockist. Wouldn’t the rockist reaction be “I’ve never heard of it, maybe it’s a neglected classic missing from my library?”

  13. 13
    DietMondrian on 16 Jun 2015 #

    So, anyway…I’ve given Bilingual a few spins and though it has its weak points, there’s lots to enjoy. Discoteca/Single make for a terrific opening, but it then sags horribly: 19 years on I still think Metamorphosis is bloody awful, and things don’t recover much with Electricity. I can take or leave A Red Letter Day (to my ears it’s a retread of Go West, with an inferior melody), and Saturday Night Forever is feeble, but the rest is lovely. And I’d forgotten how much I love the drums at the start of Before.

    So I’ve decided to reprogramme the album, using some of the associated B-sides. Yeah, cheers. Here we are:

    Betrayed (Se A Vida E B-side, replaces Metamorphosis)
    How I Learned to Hate Rock ‘n’ Roll (Se A Vida E B-side, replaces Electricity)
    Se A Vida E
    It Always Comes as a Surprise
    A Red Letter Day
    Up Against It
    The Survivors
    To Step Aside
    Hit and Miss (Before B-side, replaces Saturday Night Forever)

    Hidden bonus track (this is the mid-90s, after all): The Truck Driver and His Mate (Before B-side)

    *Heads off to popular shopping website and buys second-hand copy of Disco 2*

  14. 14
    Alfred on 17 Jun 2015 #

    “The Truck Driver and His Mate” is one of their best B-sides. I’m partial to “The Boy Who Couldn’t Keep His Clothes On” too.

  15. 15
    swanstep on 17 Jun 2015 #

    Looking at spotify and youtube hits, I see that The Goo Goo Dolls’ ‘Iris’ is pretty darned popular for a track from 1998 (esp. from a group whose hey-day wasn’t that big and certainly didn’t continue past about 2000). Checking now, it seems to have become a pop standard, one that’s used repeatedly on X-factor, Idol, Glee, and the like, and has recently been covered live by Taylor Swift, Beyonce and Kelly Clarkson, among others. Blimey, I had no idea.

    Trajectories towards standardhood and occasionally even ubiquity are often a little eccentric: ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ didn’t really get going until the mid-to-late ’90s and has never gone away since, ditto ‘Hallelujah’. ‘Iris’ was originally a much bigger, dodgy-movie-soundtracking radio hit than either of those, but its staying-power as (I’m guessing) slowie kareoke-bait may well be similar.

  16. 16
    flahr on 17 Jun 2015 #

    It came bizarrely close to being bunnied back in 2011, which was I think the heyday of X Factor-inspired massive reentries (it and “Fast Car” were the two biggies).

    We were never being bunnied/We were never being bunned

  17. 17
    swanstep on 17 Jun 2015 #

    @Flahr, 16. Wow, I just checked its Official Charts Company info, and the Goo Goo Dolls’s ‘Iris’ spent only 4 weeks in the UK charts in the ’90s, peaking at #26. Starting in 2006 it’s spent another 88 weeks in the charts, peaking at #3 in 2011, and including a few more weeks just a couple of months ago.

    This is almost exactly the pattern of ‘Don’t Stop Believin”: Journey got only 4 weeks in the UK charts with it back in the 20C, peaking at #62, whereas starting in 2007 it’s enjoyed a further 91 weeks in the charts, peaking at #6 in 2010.

  18. 18
    Phil on 17 Jun 2015 #

    …and I’ve still managed to avoid hearing it at all, until this morning when I sought it out on YT. The news that it’s got this anthemic status baffles me – to me it sounds about as engaging as the second single off a late Oasis album.

  19. 19
    Tommy Mack on 17 Jun 2015 #

    I can’t find any reference to the MTV poll I recalled Iris topping.

    Maybe I was thinking of this:

    “In October 2012, “Iris” was ranked #1 on Billboard’s “Top 100 Pop Songs 1992–2012″ chart” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goo_Goo_Dolls

  20. 20
    Pink.champale on 19 Jun 2015 #

    To the extent that I’d ever thought about them I’d got the Goo Goo Dolls down as third tier post grunge also rans of the Blind Melon type. So yes, it was quite a suprise at a work karaoke when all the twentysomethings started agitating for one of their songs. It was less of a surprise when it turned out to be rubbish. Kids eh?

  21. 21
    Mostro on 13 Jul 2015 #

    @Phil (#1); Regarding the case… It’s well-known that artwork designed with LP-sized covers in mind often loses a lot (or doesn’t work in the intended manner) when scaled down to CD size.

    While most covers of the CD era take this into account (e.g. by cutting down on detail that gets lost at smaller scales and focusing on bolder, simpler design that has more impact), it’s hard to say that a good example of this- e.g. Primal Scream’s “Screamadelica”- still wouldn’t look as good, if not better, scaled back up to LP size.

    “Very” is the very major exception to this. Truthfully, it’s one of the few examples of CD artwork- or rather, case design- where one can honestly say that it wouldn’t- and couldn’t- have worked nearly as well as an LP. In part that’s because it’s closely derived from the standard CD case design, and any attempt to have scaled that up to LP size would have looked contrived and silly, or required modification that lost the essence of the original. But it’s also because the design itself works much better at CD scale.

    I think that design used for the CD version could possibly have worked as a cassette case too- but it appears that they went with a standard clear case and inlay card instead. At any rate, it’s a shame that the CD reissues came in more conventional clear-case-and-inlay packaging due- I assume- to manufacturing costs.

  22. 22
    Phil on 13 Jul 2015 #

    Hard to think of many other albums that played with the CD ‘package’ in that way – offhand all I can think of is a couple that did the clear case/clear plastic insert combo (Holger Hiller in 1991, Faust in 1996), and even that was only following the lead of Faust in 1971. Who – apart from the PSBs – has done anything new with CD packaging? The Shins’ foldout cutaway insert for Chutes Too Narrow is neat, but not so immediate – you don’t know it’s there until you get it out of the case. Beck’s The Information (initially?) came with a sheet of stickers allowing you to customise the (blank-ish) insert, but I bet nobody did – any more than anyone peeled that banana.

  23. 23
    The Lurker on 13 Jul 2015 #

    #23 – Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space springs to mind, with its imitation pharmaceutical box. Not sure how that would work as an LP either.

  24. 24
    Phil on 13 Jul 2015 #

    Oh, good one. The moulded plastic box for Let It Come Down was pretty good, too.

  25. 25
    Andrew Farrell on 13 Jul 2015 #

    #23 – Ladies and Gentlemen was also available as 12 one-song CDs in individual blister packaging.

  26. 26
    StringBeanJohn82 on 14 Jul 2015 #

    ‘Kid A’ had a secret artwork booklet under the black bit holding the CD in place. Not the same as ‘Very’ or ‘Ladies and Gentleman’ I grant you but cool enough at the time.

  27. 27
    Phil on 14 Jul 2015 #

    Only read about that years after the event & promptly felt a mug for getting the double 10″. Sometimes you just can’t win.

  28. 28
    lonepilgrim on 14 Jul 2015 #

    this use of the CD format just popped up on my Tumblr dashboard:

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