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“Dancing to Roxy and Bowie”: Reviewing the Pet Shop Boys, Nonetheless

As the Pet Shop Boys unveil their long-awaited fifteenth studio set, it might be too much to expect Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe to define our times as conclusively as they did the 1980s. Their first dozen or so hits — from the barren breakthrough of West End Girls (first released a staggering 40 years ago today) to the beautifully ruminative Being Boring — now appear to offer a blisteringly concise guide to Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, from big bang boom to tearstained bust.

Yet there are certainly occasional gems in the PSB’s post imperial output, too, and after a decade-long trio of more primitively electronic albums on their own independent label x2, with Nonetheless the seminal synth pop duo have returned to Parlophone to craft arguably their most varied long-player since the 1990s, positively brimming with a plethora of pop culture references across the decades.

Let’s run through the tracks tonight. 

Loneliness

Trailed as “very tuneful, less electronic-sounding“, the bulk of the Nonetheless sessions took place at the Hackney Downs home studio of Simian Mobile Disco supremo James Ellis Ford (Depeche Mode, Jessie Ware, Blur). There were also three days of orchestral overdubs five miles west at Crouch Hill’s Church Studios — a coveted facility formerly owned by Dave Stewart, where the majority of Eurythmics’ work was created (as well as, famously, the location where Erasure collided with the Jesus And Mary Chain).

Yet, curiously, ever since Loneliness was unleashed as the first taster of the album back in January I’ve been waiting for someone to mash up the set’s first 45 with the Tomcraft tune of the same name. To my disappointment, that’s yet to happen; which, to get all Freudian for a moment, might indicate there’s something missing about this one.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly not a bad song, but the airbrushed sophisto production seems to rob it of a memorable melody, and a painting by numbers chorus that is easily forgotten. Best line: “Like Ringo walking by the canal…“, especially as it’s describing a forlorn scene in A Hard Day‘s Night, by the River Thames in Kew.

Feel

A few years back Neil Tennant, strapped into his high horse, proclaimed it lazy and unoriginal that songwriters come up with new songs with old titles — ie ones that are ingrained in the public consciousness by being made famous by an earlier work. Perhaps he thinks he warrants a pass due to Robbie Williams being a confirmed Pethead. 

Either way, this Feel (“You make me feel like nobody else can”) is still a nakedly honest love song, though less a yearning slushball and more a mid-tempo declaration of trust — I Would Never Let You Down from “a man who’s lost in a rapture” on a Being Boring type journey with added bus ride just to mix up the transport metaphors. Climaxing with a smattering of beats-filled chunky percussion, the allusion to a Rossetti frieze while describing a chilly terrace is a clever bit of wordplay too. A definite grower.

Why Am I Dancing?

A blaring fanfare announces Why Am I Dancing?, another lonely boy ode in several ways. Again, the lump in the throat lyrical themes are plucked straight from the PSB reservoir marked A New Life, with flashes of poignant Bilingual booty like A Red Letter Day and The Survivors.

Sonically the most ‘90s sounding offering on the LP, James Ford’s production is top notch here. The strings subtly adding a wistful melancholia to a euphoric four-on-the-floor synth banger, with bells, whistles and a smattering of electro bleeps. To describe this anthemic corker as something like a long lost outtake from Very would be to do it a gross disservice. 

New London Boy

The first of a pair of pretty ones unashamedly evoking the mid 1980s. It’s sort of Soft Cell pumped full of a Juicy Fruitesque funky electro hip-hop groove, with an anxious lyric going back further in time, almost certainly to the young red-haired Neil Tennant arriving in the big smoke of 1973. There’s no haversack or “shoes were high” but there are resonant recollections of homophobia, and gangs, while, later tonight, on the dance floor “everyone’s dancing to Roxy and Bowie”. 

As Neil mentioned in earlier works, it was a dream of a glamorous life “no one could shatter”. Now almost 70, he still sounds like a man in a raincoat, lurking furtively in the queue outside the club – a Geordie Humphrey Bogart from North Shields, whispering sad truths about the scene. Happily, a sad banger that is immaculately insistent, even with those sleazy saxophone countermelodies in the last minute of the song.

Dancing Star 

He‘s the bomb. This joyous throwback is, essentially, a celebration of human derring-do, of “jumping the barrier”, of arriving. In this sense, the use of a more rough and ready accompaniment that evokes the nascent Please era mirrors the moment the Pet Shop Boys themselves arrived.

Like Loneliness, on first listen Dancing Star sounded like Ver Boys are painting by numbers, the choruses for both 45s something of an acquired taste. Hell, even their erstwhile colleague, orchestrator Richard Niles described it to me as ”standard” while bemoaning a “lack of sonic contrast”. (“It does not work for me with those rather cheap, limp-wristed fake strings.”)

However, on repeated listens it’s obviously a deliciously derivative homage to West End Girls (tellingly, it’s been released within days of the latter’s 40th anniversary — 9 April 1984, a date that ushered in a sequence of astonishing releases) and with a melody cheekily purloined from Madonna’s Holiday, payback time for her freeloading interpolation of WEG in 2005’s Jump. With its three syllable title, Dancing Star could even be said to involve the spirit of some other dance floor classics, namely Dancing Queen and Lucky Star. And that won‘t be the las time they channel the Swedish Fab Four either.

Strikingly, there seems to be two naysayer camps that this track polarises: they either dislike the verse melody (admittedly, it’s slightly forced in a Pop Kids vocal kinda way) or it’s the bombastic shouty chorus that grates. Although it sounds like the musical equivalent of as cut and shunt second hand car, the way the verses are propelled into the edgy chorus is eminently clever. Marking the moment the song’s subject, Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, might leap ecstatically in to a graceful pirouette, you hear the familiar sound of an ’80s orchestra hit and keyboard glissando accentuating the sashaying grace and energy of our titular dancing star. It sounds like a very early to mid decade SAW sample, though apparently this thrusty recreation is not courtesy of those period machines, the Fairlight or Emulator II, surprisingly.

A clarion call to freedom, Dancing Star has a lot in common with Go West thematically (those lapping waves and yapping seagulls are no coincidence), in that it is again about the human spirit rising above the system and transgressing adventurously to defeat adversity. The only black mark is the careless use of Orly Airport to describe Nureyev’s defection “to the free west”. It was another Paris aerodrome, Le Bourget, where the dancer evaded his Soviet security in 1961, actually.

A New Bohemia

Another reference to “something new from France“ begets that A New Bohemia is rampantly retro; a pretty piano piece that exalts silent movie stars in ’60s Hollywood wrapped up in Mott The Hoople glam racket from the ’70s. This is classic PSB that ticks so many boxes — an elegiac bittersweet ballad that summons some of their Early Stuff — but augmented by sweeping strings evoking 2006’s Trevor Horn-helmed Fundamental at its most stately, specifically the luscious, Beatles-esque Luna Park. 

Curiously, as this poignant tale of regret continues gets past the two minute-mark the middle eight suddenly pays homage to Bowie’s All The Young Dudes via the Boys’ own I Get A Along. Now that BBC Piano Room cover makes perfect sense. 

The Schlager Hit Parade

Oh, the wags. The Schlager Hit Parade starts off with layers of pretty acoustic guitar washes, like a Release reject. But it’s deliciously deceptive, because it suddenly mutates into an anthemic Eurovision type scarf-waver bigging up a number of the continent’s famous fare — from Sauerkraut to Sangria — as it gallops through the seasons with feverish fervour. 

“It’s always Christmas or the sound of summer” is the happy hook, and it’s a masterful ear worm. If you are suddenly transported to Stockholm in a melee of mid 1970s naivety then the song has done its job. Thirty-two years after Erasure’s ABBA-Esque, their erstwhile pop rivals have just written their own ABBA song, and it’s the one solitary slice of Eurotrash kitsch on an otherwise solid and classy album. A single, Bilingual? It must be obvious.

The Secret Of Happiness

And talking of Eurovision performers. 

Have the Boys been spending much time in Gallic lands lately? And, more importantly, is Neil Tennant all loved up? The PSB frontman has rarely celebrated emotional intimacy so openly in his lyrics than on the sweetly primitive The Secret Of Happiness.

It’s a sixties-ish middle of the road Burt Bacharach-ish ballad which is probably the only song in existence that name-checks the Sunday Times and the Mona Lisa. Thanks to its slightly cheesy harp-laden cocktail lounge arrangement — think Dusty Springfield doing one of her famous Italian dramas over the top of the PSB’s Marvin Gaye-quoting early noughties flipside Between Two Islands, but remade by Prefab Sprout for a crooner in the vein of Engelbert Humperdinck*. Phew. Balearic bliss is back, back, BACK!

Bullet For Narcissus

At first impressions, the jaunty, Housey rhythm of Bullet For Narcissus could have fitted on the Stuart Price-produced trilogy of albums that the Boys put out, from 2013’s exhilarating Electric to 2016‘s slightly Super and 2020’s Hansa-helmed Hotspot.

Alas, before we know it, we’re treated to heavily reverb’d twangy guitar that sounds like a knowing hybrid of Bond meets early Beatles. However, with steely snark it’s the lyrics that are the most colourful and catty, with the narrator a shadowy secret agent whose job is to protect a narcissistic sociopath in power.

With edgy, unsubtle lines like “I sometimes think he lives for fame”, “His politics are simply mean” “He’s so banal he’s made it mainstream” I’ve yet to determine if the titular target is specifically Donald Trump or Boris Johnson, though BoJo was born in 1964, which is the period this brutal banger seems to throwback most to. Either way, the message is perfectly simple: don‘t give popularism a chance.

Champers alright for you, readers?

Love Is The Law 

Time to Roger Moore.

A recent interview suggested PSB prefer not to finish an album with a ballad, though Love Is The Law is far from stomper material. It starts off resolutely morose before casing the joint with another John Barry-esque wash of atmospheric sixties-style spy hooks — slightly more The Persuaders meets The Saint than 007 this time — and a curiously cynical lyric with allusions to prostitution, sea and a shady tree with “a head for business and a heart for crime”. And all because “love is a profession as old as time.”

Tennant & Lowe are masters at cold-eyed character studies, and this coruscating closer has a knowing glint as it intensely captures the brio, elan and ruthless ambition of its slightly sinister subject. And if you‘re fond of James Ford’s work with orchestral retropop merchants The Last Shadow Puppets you will find yourself having this five-minute downbeat drama stuck on repeat. Fill your boots then.

In the mixed up world that is 2024, it has felt like aeons since PSB managed to do the double and sound both sonically engaged (eg Electric or Yes) and lyrically profound (ie Fundamental). But with Nonetheless they manage a masterstroke by presenting a superbly produced collection of soulful streamlined pop with warmth and pathos that sounds eclectic yet cohesive and superbly sequenced.

Forty years after their arrival, there are effectively two ways to consume Pet Shop Boys music: you can forensically dissect every syllable and cymbal looking for self-prescribed flaws, or, after all these years, you can thrill to the resonant life-affirming flashes of brilliance and humanity deeply present in this poignant collection of intimate short stories. Still lots of opportunities then.

They’re not the world’s most enduring pop duo for nowt, you know. 

Steve Pafford, Nice

•An ardent Pethead, sadly passed, Chris Laszcz aka TechnoTranceMix, was Englebert‘s Quorn-raised great nephew and took me to the infamous Dive Bar in London‘s Chinatown almost exactly twenty years ago. Wish I could find the piccies.

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