Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Behaviour Might Not Be My Favorite Pet Shop Boys Album, But It Still Resonates!

The Good: Some wonderful lyrics, Good vocals, Music is decent
The Bad: Short, Somewhat repetitive sound.
The Basics: A good Pet Shop Boys album, Behaviour redefines the band as a group that can effectively create pop ballads instead of just dance hits.

It is rare that I find myself listening to an album of great renown without actually knowing it is famous going into the experience. Yet, in getting some background information for my review of Behaviour by the Pet Shop Boys, I learned that this album I had never heard of was actually considered one of the essential albums of the 1990s. Go figure. When I began to play it, I was just surprised to hear "Being Boring." I had only heard Merill Bainbridge's cover on The Garden and it was a pleasant surprise on Behaviour to hear the original, especially as it was the first track on the album!

Ironically, I found myself thinking that the album was somewhat overrated. As a fan of the Pet Shop Boys album Actually, I was surprised that Behaviour was considered so much better when there are fewer hooks and none of the songs seemed quite as distinct. In fact, Behaviour is almost entirely composed of pop ballads, whereas Actually has dance songs, ballads and fun pop numbers. Behaviour is a much more intimate album and I can see why those looking for a departure from the regular works of Pet Shop Boys would enjoy it. It is engaging and the poetry of Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant is remarkably good on the album.

With only ten songs occupying 49:50 on a single c.d., Behaviour is largely the work of the Pet Shop Boys, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. The duo wrote all of the songs and Tennant provides all of the lead vocals. Most of the programming and synthesizer work was done by Chris Lowe and while there are additional musicians, one suspects this is exactly the sound they wanted considering they are credited as co-producers of the overall album.

On Behaviour, the music is largely synthesizer-dominated. While there is recognizable percussion and it is significant, it takes a much more traditional back seat to the synthesizer and orchestra parts which create strong, soft melodies. The songs actually wisely use the instrumental accompaniment as just that. Of all of the Pet Shop Boys albums I have listened to so far, Behaviour has the most muted instrumental accompaniment. As a result, all of the vocals in the songs may be clearly heard and the album has a slower, more murky feel to it.

That said, there is still enough pop to Behaviour to thrill most fans of Pet Shop Boys who like the dance-pop aspect most of their albums possess. It might be hard to dance to "This Must Be The Place I Waited Years To Leave," but the song has a resonance that still evokes images of smoky clubs and nighttime. Even when the Pet Shop Boys are not making music which one would dance fast to, they keep the beats tight and present instrumental accompaniment that is grand enough to make listeners sway at the very least.

Vocally, Neil Tennant is extraordinary on Behaviour. He goes lower on several songs, like "Being Boring," and he presents his songs with an earnest quality that is endearing. Tennant overpowers the instrumental accompaniment on "Jealousy" to make the lines heard and he does it with a perfectly musical quality that is wonderful. While his vocals are occasionally produced with reverb and minor mechanized sounds, largely Behaviour succeeds because his natural voice is heard most of all. When he does into the upper registers of his tenor range on "To Face The Truth," the emotion it conveys is wrenching. And at all times, Tennant sings clearly on this album.

The clarity of the vocals does what it is supposed to do, which is to highlight the lyrics. On Behaviour, the band tells a series of musical storysongs or emotional musings. Often more complex than regular pop-rock songs, the Pet Shop Boys envelop the listener with intrigue when they sing "Each morning after Sunblest / Feel the benefit, mental arithmetic / I waited by the staffroom / In time for benediction / Living a law just short of delusion / When we fall in love there's confusion / This must be the place I waited years to leave / To our voices nobody's listening / We shiver in the rain by the touchline / Then a coach ride to the station / 'My lord, the carriage awaiteth!' / Living a law just short of delusion / When we fall in love there's confusion / This must be the place I waited years to leave" ("This Must Be The Place I Waited Years To Leave"). There is a lonely quality to the rhymes and diction that is often wrenching and the Pet Shop Boys present their poetry remarkably well.

In addition to lyrics about love and loss, the Pet Shop Boys characterize desolation and depression remarkably well in their songs. On songs like "Only The Wind," the band manages to create a view of a world without overpopulation which is haunting. With lines like "It's only the wind blowing cans along the street / Someone's dustbin lid playing havoc with the peace/ There's nobody hiding behind a locked door / And no one's been lying, 'cause we don't lie any more" ("Only The Wind") the band repaints the world as a wasteland and the starkness of the lines is mirrored wonderfully in the music.

This is not to say all of the songs are amazing. "How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously?" is a bit repetitive for my liking, for example. But largely Behaviour has hits, whether or not they were charting singles at the time the album was released. Their take on "Jealousy," for example puts it in a fair race with Natalie Merchant's original version of the song by the same title for best musical expression of the emotion. On their version, they sing of the emotion with perceptive characterization: "Where've you been? / Who've you seen? / You didn't phone when you said you would / Do you lie? / Do you try / To keep in touch? You know you could / I've tried to see your point of view / But could not hear or see / For jealousy" ("Jealousy"). That has the paranoid voice of a jealous person to me!

Ultimately, Behaviour holds together as a surprisingly tight album, even if it does not stand out the way other albums of the Pet Shop initially do. The ballads are more emotive than dancable and ultimately, it makes for a sound that seems like it truly deserves the endurance it has had in the imagination of audiophiles everywhere.

The best song is "This Must Be The Place I Waited Years To Leave," the weak point is "So Hard," more from being less memorable than truly being bad.

For other Pet Shop Boys works, please check out my reviews of:
How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously? (single)
Discography: The Complete Singles
Was It Worth It? (single)
Se A Vida E (single)
I Don't Know What You Want But I Can't Give It Any More (single)
New York City Boy (single)
Pop Art: The Hits
Disco 3
Disco 4


For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

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

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  1. Hi.

    As I said before, my sister was the one who introduced me to Pet Shop Boys 26 years ago and boy, how she loved them ! The first 3 albums (Please, Disco and Actually) were played all day long in our house. She was really nuts about them : her favorite group and all.

    And then came... Behavior.

    And what a shock it was. She thought it was awful and she has never bought a Pet Shop Boys CD ever since !

    And I must admit that at first, I agreed with her. To her, at the exception of So hard and Seriously, you could burn all the rest.

    I was a little more receptive. I liked This must be the place I waited years to leave (and it still is my favorite song of this album : I love the very rare extended mix that can be found on some Jealousy maxi cd singles because there you can listen more carefully to all the amazing layers of sounds this song truly has), I liked The end of the world and given time, I slowly warmed up to Being boring but it was a very long process.

    But I still think (even though I love this album a little more now than I did when it was released in 1990) that it's not a patch on Actually, Please, Very or even their last album Elysium that a lot of fans like to call now Behavior 2.

    1. It's funny, because skimming my review, I realize I have no distinct memories of this album!

      Maybe it was overrated . . .