Sunday, September 26, 2010

Actually Is Near-Perfect Pop That Is Worth Returning To!

The Good: Excellent lyrics, Good sound, Good use of voice, Generally good production,
The Bad: Occasionally overproduced, Short.
The Bottom Line: Buy Actually if you're sick of the lame sound of dance music today - in the beginning it was music and this is it!

When I first reviewed the Pet Shop Boys album Actually, it was at a time shortly after Madonna had released Music. In an interview at that time, Madonna stated that the thought behind her album Music was that a lot of techno music lacks spirit or lyrics that dig deeper or express real human emotions. She should have done some more homework; here at the beginning to the dance-techno scene were the Pet Shop Boys. I'm naturally biased against techno and especially dance music because Madonna is right in general terms - dance music tends to be sound-heavy garbage that says nothing when analyzed. It's about making sound. Techno tends to take great pride in experimenting with sounds, but less emphasis is placed on lyrics.

The Pet Shop Boys, whose works I immersed myself in for July of this year - check out my review of Discography: The Complete Singles by clicking here!, classic album Actually is about making music and it succeeds. From the highly empathetic, well-engineered lyrics of "Once More Chance" to the original folk-storytelling, pop sound of the "King's Cross," the Pet Shop Boys manage to say something and through their catchy tunes, they drill into the listener to get their messages across. They take a great deal of time crafting their lyrics and it is evident in their songs. Take "It Couldn't Happen Here," which opens with the poetic lines: "Yesterday / Remember how clear it seems / In six-inch heels, / Quoting magazines?" They manage to instantly create a definitive image, a sense of time and place in their lines that leaves a lasting visual image with the listener. That's almost unheard of in today's pop music.

The Pet Shop Boys utilize synthesizers and their own voices and the two mix quite well. In fact, in their hit song "Shopping," it's occasionally difficult to tell where the voice ends and where the synth begins. It's actually a wonderful sound. Unlike in most music today where synthesizers are used, on Actually there is an excellent balance between voice and instrumentals. The synths are not being used to cover for a lack of vocal talents, instead they are creating the music to accompany the human voices.

In fact, unlike their very typical dance song "Heart," which has an uncharacteristic lack of depth or commentary, all of the other tracks manage to say something and do it in an interesting way. I'm pleased to say this is an album I've come back to a lot over the years - it's one I bought the c.d. of after over a decade of listening to it on tape.

The songs use a higher level of diction than most music today. In addition, the rhymes are fairly tight. Add to that, the songs all have catchy tunes, but when one finds themselves singing the songs, the lyrics come easily. This is a nice thing to contemplate because it is the lines that come back to the listeners; despite having tunes that could easily get caught in one's head, the lines of, say "What Have I Done To Deserve This?" will pop into the head and get caught there more than just the sound of it.

The album succeeds largely because it overcomes the traditional nightmares of banality that have become dance music and techno as a genre. The lyrics are not meaningless like most dance songs today. The music fits the songs, which is pretty wonderful, especially when compared to how some techno music today makes a great sound, but says little.

The best of the tracks is "Rent" and the sole weak link is "Heart."

For other works by male artists or bands, please check out my reviews of:
Oasis - Don't Look Back In Anger
The Bee Gees - Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack
Crash Test Dummies - God Shuffled His Feet


For other music reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010, 2003 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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  1. Hi ! Actually is to me, with their first album Please, one of the best albums of the Pet Shop Boys. And for years now, as a fan, I'm still waiting (and hoping) for them to go back to those roots.

    It's the kind of music that is still fresh to our ears today even though this album is now more than 25 years old. It's an impressive piece of work and as a amateur musician myself, I'm still trying to do that kind of music today.

    The boys themselves, call it their imperial phase, and how right they are. Even nowadays they sometimes make a wink to that style like in the song Fugitive (on the album Fundamental bonus tracks) or in A face like that from their latest album Elysium : proof that they CAN go back to that style of music again, if they really wanted to, so what are they waiting for, huh ?

    One of my favourite songs here is One more chance, the best lyrics to me are the ones of King's Cross but the song I don't like that much (sorry) is It couldn't happen here, it doesn't speak to me and I kind of like Heart even though the lyrics are very bland and unoriginal but it's a love song and it's not a style where the boys shine the most.

    To make it a perfect album, I would have replaced It couldn't happen here by any of the b-sides they released for the singles : You know where you went wrong, Do I have to or I get excited - you get excited too - which has my favourite pet shop boys lyrics ever : we've lost all our money / we're thrown out of bars / we're lying in the gutter but we're looking at the stars ! ) but we can't re-write history now, can we ? Pity.

    1. Thanks for the comment; WOW! You sure know a lot about the band!

      Thanks so much for reading and contributing!

  2. You're very welcome. It's nice to chat about the things you love, once in a while.

    Actually, my sister was the one who really was crazy about the Pet Shop Boys way back in 1986 and she not only, introduce me to them and to a lot of 80's groups of the same style like Depeche Mode.

    But after 1990 she began to like them a little less, but by then, it was too late, I was hooked. And after listening to them for more than 25 years now, it's no wonder I know so much about them. ;)

    1. I like chatting about the things I love! In the case of Pet Shop Boys, "Actually" is the only album of theirs I still own. But I have the two-disc version!

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting!