Reviewing their sixth album: that’s Pet Shop Boys being Bilingual 

If you’re not comfortable being associated with a gay “synthpop” duo then why not expand your horizons and go Bi? Because Bilingual — the sixth Pet Shop Boys studio album — is an interesting if patchy collection that incorporates world music rhythms — principally Latin — into their established pop framework. Trailed in the publicity bumpf as being largely inspired by the boys’ 1994 Discovery tour of South America, in fact the Latino seeds that infuse much, but not all, of Bilingual, had already been sown due to Neil Tennant’s relationship with a young Canarian.

Being the first PSB album post Tennant’s official public “coming out”,  Bilingual comes amid a degree of horn blowing and banner waving. Indeed, much of the lyrical content alludes to throwing “skeletons out of your closet” to join the boys in happysad and liberated abandon. Though having their new US label, the legendary Atlantic records, sign them up to their much ballyhooed Gay Marketing Division (whatever that is) is a corner boxed off if ever there was one.

Unlike 1990’s reflective Behaviour and 1993’s triumphant Very there’s no one overriding figure in the producer’s chair, but despite its lack of cohesion Bilingual is not without its highpoints. The opening track, the dark and brooding Discoteca hints at a classic to be, but with their reliance on insistent off-beat percussion, the attempts at Spanish musical thematics start wearing heavy by the catchy if cloying triple tracked harmonies of Se a vida é, with a succession of tunefully flat and often uninspired ditties that would have barely passed for flipsides not too long ago.

There’s a solid middle section with the sublime It Always Comes As A Surprise through to The Survivors, a pair of handsome weepies par excellence, before things start to fade again with the less than tasty triumvirate of Before (empty pseudo sophistication), To Step Aside (jarring) and Saturday Night Forever (appalling) rounding out proceedings. 

The aforementioned SNF and a bonkers Single excepted, there are few outright stinkers, but there’s enough bland inoffensiveness to keep things below the level of their celebrated imperial period, and Bilingual, strange sequencing and all, becomes a slight struggle to hold one’s attention all the way through.

Which isn’t to say Tennant and Lowe can’t summon up scads of witty lyrics and engaging electro-pop when they feel like it. At first glance, A Red Letter Day, for instance, sounds like formulaic PSB-by-numbers — it’s essentially underpinned by a Go West-style Russian choir over a chord structure derived from Beethoven’s Ode To Joy. Though on closer inspection there’s a significant political and spiritual subtext going on, with references to Jesus, Godot and possibly even their most recent disco diva, David Bowie, with a cutting line about “measured cool fading to insignificance.”

Happily, Pet Shop Boys singles still regularly reach the Top 10 in Britain, whereas Dame David’s been struggling in that department for years. Even the dynamic duo’s takeover of Hallo Spaceboy only landed him at No.12. 

Anyone for Prodigy?

Steve Pafford

Reviewing 35 years of Pet Shop Boys albums from start to finish is here

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Steve Pafford
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