One could almost call it mediocre: the time when Pet Shop Boys went “rock” with Release

Issued twenty years ago today, Release was the Pet Shop Boys’ eighth studio album, and for me personally, the first where I’d interviewed both Tennant and Lowe in advance of its release.

As with the other retro-fitted PSB album reviews on stevepafford.com the past year, I’m reviewing this as if I’d hopped in a Tardis — this time going back in time to 2002. What say you?

How do they manage it? 

Somehow, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, never anybody’s idea of hip young things, have elegantly survived a cut-throat industry to become the most successful pop duo of all time. Mind you, having seen a symbiotic dip in both their artistic and commercial fortunes since 1996’s internationally muddled Bilingual, the Pet Shop Boys have took note of the unit-shifting success enjoyed by their Parlophone label mates, polite soft rockers Coldplay, and nabbed the Devonian’s engineer Michael Brauer to go for a much more raw, slightly unfinished rock-inspired sound.

That this surprise move coincided with a radio resurgence in ’80s revivalist electronic pop is a classic, contrary PSB move. But Neil Tennant, in my second interview conducted with the Boys, is at pains to point out that ultimately, the Pet Shop Boys don’t follow other people’s trends. We follow our own instincts.” 

Sinners rejoice, because on Release the duo have contrarily opted for a downbeat collection of rock-tinged ballads which, according to the same half of the group, “have no basis in dance music whatsoever.”

Crikey, that’s half their gay audience sitting this one out then.

This Release opens, unusually for a PSB LP, with the first single Home And Dry, an understated, slight lead track with an attractive, arpeggio synth line. It’s followed by the latest variation on Oasis cribbing early ’70s Bowie, I Get Along, a scarf-waver about Tony Blair‘s relationship with No.10 spin doctor Alistair Campbell. In imperial periods gone past it would have made a fun slightly novelty B-side. As it is, in 2002 it’s scheduled to be the next single, which probably tells you more about the lack of potential singles material than anything. 

Birthday Boy is another moody rock ballad, but with its coruscating solo from guitar star Johnny Marr a vastly superior one that sounds suspiciously like a Suede outtake (it’s not, helpfully). One of its more appealing aspects of the song is hearing Tennant sing in a much lower register than normal – slightly lower than he seems comfortable with at times, actually. Whether he has the range or not, it’s a great song anyway. And with its Jesus metaphors I can’t help thinking what a brilliant Christmas double A-side it would make, paired up with a PSB track that’s so far only ever been issued as a fan club freebie, the fabulously festive It Doesn’t Often Snow At Christmas.

London is an attractive acoustic-based number about Russian immigrants flocking to the UK on the hunt for work (and “credit card fraud”, natch), and finding some of the excitement that the city can hold. Autotuned to within an inch of its life, it’s the only track on Release not self-produced, but hails from an earlier session in the German capital with Teutonic mixmeister Chris Zippel. With admirable forward planning, in the Groucho interview, Tennant tells me that “If we release London as a single we’ll back it up with the other two tracks we recorded in Berlin.”

Falling in love via electronic media? Well, that’s never going to end well. Still, E-Mail is next, and is a pretty, percolating if slightly trite ballad that takes us to midpoint.

Samurai in Autumn is an eerie, semi-instrumental dance track which actually fits nicely due to its lo-fi production. It’s about the state of the duo’s career at the tricky time of the preceding album, 1999’s Nightlife, and sees ver Boys at their most introspective here.

As moving as it is depressing, the torchy Love Is A Catastrophe is an exceptional piece, and what it really highlights the fact is that Pet Shop Boys have taken a very different songwriting approach with this album. Masters of miserablism they may be but who would have thunk they could do the unthinkable and out-Morrissey Morrissey. In a pop parallel universe this would have been the lead single from the album The Smiths would have recorded for EMI had the band not imploded.

Here’s Here. Charming if mediocre for sure, but how often can we say that a song is underdone? Sonically, there’s a home-baked primitive quality to this that echoes early Soft Cell only much less acidic.

So far, I’m finding Release an enjoyable if slightly unexciting album, clearly made on a budget (probably because all their creative and financial juices were being exhausted by their Closer To Heaven disco musical, which briefly appeared in 2001). But those are minor quibbles, it’s still eminently listenable.… until The Night I Fell in Love, anyway. This is the one that’s garnered a plethora of headlines about its subject matter, a closet rapper who knows someone named Stan. 

I do appreciate what they were doing here – someone does need to show Eminem that he can’t go around being cunty to everyone without some degree of comeback. It’s pretty clever too – suggesting someone so publicly homophobic would actually be gay is genius. Anyway, it’s a slight, gimmicky song with a cloying vocal and certainly would have worked better as a b-side.

You Choose is the final track on here, another example of their having taken a very different approach to their songcraft. It’s an attractively downbeat closing track — again, definite shades of Suede — which fits the theme of the album very nicely, and it features a typically wise Tennant lyric.

Release might not be perfect — indeed, one could almost call it mediocre — and it certainly lacks the duo’s instantaneous energy clout of yesteryear. Still, if you love your indie/emo sad sack moments this is certainly the album of 2002 for you. Until Mozzer gets his act together.

Steve Pafford

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