Monday, October 4, 2010

A Perfect Anthology: Pet Shop Boys Pop Art Is Truly The Greatest Hits Of The Band!

The Good: Musically creative, Great duration, Wonderful vocals, Decent lyrics, Great mix of recognizable and new songs.
The Bad: It doesn't have "The Night I Fell In Love."
The Basics: A remarkably tight album of the hits by the Pet Shop Boys, Pop Art illustrates an uncommon range and ability for a group too-often classified as a dance-pop duo!

"Greatest Hits" albums often take a hit from me when it comes time to review them. The reason for this is pretty simple; too frequently they neglect great works or equally often they come too soon in an artist's career and it is fluffed out with songs that were not even remotely hits. In the case of the Pet Shop Boys, by the time they got around to Pop Art, the band had had enough legitimate hits both on the mainstream pop charts and the dance charts that they were about due for a compilation album. Fortunately, the Pet Shop Boys do not disappoint with their anthology Pop Art, which does not neglect any of their major hits as it is a two-disc set.

That said, there is a very minor flaw, which I excuse by this being the "Hits" album instead of a "Best Of." That flaw is the absence of "The Night I Fell In Love" from Release. That charming little song is one of the best songs Pet Shop Boys ever wrote and performed and its absence is disappointing, though to be fair it was never a single or a hit in any form. Were this a "Best Of," its absence would be inexcusable, but given that this is just supposed to be the hits, the two-disc set works masterfully to encapsulate just that.

With thirty five songs (seventeen on disc one, eighteen on disc two), occupying 73:38 (disc one) and 73:28 (disc two) minutes of music, Pop Art is a powerhouse anthology that illustrates well the career of the Pet Shop Boys, both from when they were popular in the U.S. and when they fell out of the mainstream but maintained a viable career in the UK. Most of the songs are written by the Pet Shop Boys, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe: they wrote twenty-five of the songs on their own, co-wrote or provided additional lyrics to another six of the songs. Their creativity extends beyond just writing poetic lines, though; the duo provides all of their lead vocals, usually from Tennant. Chris Lowe is usually responsible for the synthesizer work and drum machine programming and on Pop Art, his works are well-represented. Many of the songs are co-produced by the band as well, so especially their later works are undeniably the sound and feel the band wanted for themselves.

For those who have never heard the works of the Pet Shop Boys, Pop Art: The Hits is a great anthology which explores their diversity. Most known from their dance-pop sound on tracks like "Domino Dancing" (a song I had forgotten about entirely as I had not heard it yet in my exploration of the Pet Shop Boys this month!) and "It's A Sin." But over the years, the group has truly explored a range of musical genres. So, while "Go West" has a very Village People sound and feel to it to open the first disc, by the third track, "Se A Vida E (That's The Way Life Is)" is shaking the formula up well with a Latin dance sound.

As well, Pet Shop Boys have mellowed their sound well beyond the usual dance tracks that made them celebrities with their songs like "West End Girls." No, Pop Art is packed with pop ballads like "Yesterday, When I Was Mad," "I Get Along," "Home And Dry" and "I Don't Know What You Want But I Can't Give It Any More." While those songs sometimes do use the predictable, standard Pet Shop Boys drum machine to help create their sound, they shake up the formula by having much more diversity to the sound than that. "Home And Dry" has a whole orchestral backing which gives it a sound that is not Dance-pop and "I Get Along" has an epic ballad quality as a result of its orchestral accompaniment.

Vocally, the album is dominated by the vocals of Neil Tennant. Sure, "New York City Boy" and "Go West" have vocals which sound like he is accompanied by a Village People revue, but most of the album is Tennant's to shine with his vocals. First, outside those two tracks - and "What Have I Done To Deserve This?" which is performed as a duet with Dusty Springfield - it is Tennant's voice which is produced ahead of the instrumental accompaniment to be the dominant sound in the listener's ears. Second, Tennant is able to articulate complex and long lines while making them sound completely musical and on Pop Art, there are no bad tracks for his vocals.

As well, Neil Tennant has an uncommon range for a male vocalist and a fearless quality about exploring that range. So, for example, he goes high and almost into the falsetto range on "It's Alright" and he descends into lower tones for "I Get Along." He exhibits almost his full range on "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots Of Money)" and he even shows off his lung capacity on "It's A Sin." Usually, his vocals are surprisingly natural and untouched up, which is atypical for a dance-pop artist. On "Paninaro '95," his vocals are somewhat mechanized, as they are on the opening of "Heart," but outside that, Tennant's vocals are clear, natural and intriguing to the ear.

There is a simple reason why Neil Tennant sings so clearly, I believe. He wants listeners to hear the lyrics he and Chris Lowe wrote. With only a few cover songs or mashups, like "Always On My Mind" and "Where The Streets Have No Name (I Can't Take My Eyes Off You)," most of the songs the Pet Shop Boys present on "Pop Art" are their own lyrical works and it makes sense that they would want to show off their writing prowess. Most often, they sing about love and relationships with lines like "Sooner or later this happens to everyone / You can live your life lonely / Heavy as stone / Live your life loving and working alone. / Say this is all you want / But I don`t believe that it`s true / `Cause when you least expect it / Waiting `round the corner for you. / Love comes quickly whatever you do / You can`t stop falling" ("Love Comes Quickly").

But more than just a silly collection of love songs, Pop Art captures well the Pet Shop Boys penchant for singing about complicated relationships. Frequently in their musical storysongs, relationships are not easy and there are conflicts. Indeed, it is an uncommon way to explore unrequited love when the men sing "It's better than nothing I suppose / Some doors have opened / Others closed / But I couldn't see you exposed / To the horrors behind some of those / Somebody said 'Listen don't you know / What you're missing, / You should be kissing him instead of / Dissing him like a punk' / But you only tell me you love me / When you're drunk" ("You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk") but the Pet Shop Boys make it work perfectly on that song and others.

Even the songs that are arguably just dance-pop numbers have uncommonly good lyrics. With poetic lines that are more conflicted than peppy, the Pet Shop Boys frequently open their listeners up to very different perspectives. They do that with the "questioning conformity" slam "It's A Sin," which was one of their first U.S. hits (and actually got my brother listening to the band back in the day, which led me to them years later!). On "It's A Sin," the duo makes danceable "At school they taught me how to be / So pure in thought and word and deed / They didn't quite succeed / For everything I long to do / No matter when or where or who / Has one thing in common, too / It's a sin," which is no small feat!

Ultimately, Pop Art is a decent exploration of a band whose years on the U.S. charts may have passed, but whose creative genius has never stopped. Pop Art is a perfect argument that just because something or someone is no longer popular in the mainstream, it is not producing audacious, clever and compelling music. Those who pick up this two-disc set will be glad they did, even if "Hallo Spaceboy" (the group's duet with David Bowie) is absent!

The best tracks are "What Have I Done To Deserve This?" (disc 1) and "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots Of Money)" (disc 2). The weakest tracks are the repetitive "Se A Vida E (That's The Way Life Is)" (disc 1) and "Single - Bilingual" (disc 2). Even they are not enough to drag this compilation down.

For other works by the Pet Shop Boys, please check out my reviews of:
How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously? (single)
Discography: The Complete Singles
New York City Boy (single)


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

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

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  1. Hi !

    First : what bugs the most with this compilation is that 2 singles aren’t there, granted, they weren’t hits, but still, they aren’t there (Was it worth it ? and How can you expect to be taken seriously ?) when really awful tracks are (Liberation, Single, Somewhere, brrr), and yet the album is called The hits (and those 3 awful tracks really weren’t hits neither).

    Second : As any Pet Shop Boys fan, I could argue with anyone what tracks had to be classified as POP and what tracks had to be classified as ART. And the way they did it is all wrong since you get CD1 with all the songs with thumping beats and CD2 gets almost all the boring ones, it seems a little bit unfair, doesn’t it ?

    And last but not least : all these versions aren’t always the single versions : Heart is the “Actually” album version and Suburbia is the neither the album version nor the single version but the version of the video (?!).

    It’s true that on occasion, the album version is sometimes better than the single remix (I wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing or Yesterday when I was mad are natural cases of that point) but I feel that a compilation should always use the singles versions and should always be chronological. And inside the booklet, you can add the lyrics or better even the records covers, release dates and chart positions. And in these matters, I prefer their first hits compilation Discography. But that’s just the way I feel.

    But one thing that always makes me laugh about Pet Shop Boys, is that the names of their albums are always one single words : Please, Disco, Actually, Behavior, Very etc. when on the other hand, the singles are always as long as one can think of : I wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing, I don’t know what you want but I can’t give it any more or You only tell me you love me when you’re drunk. Up until then, especially in pop, only Bonnie Tyler had done that (with “If you were a woman and I was a man” or “Loving you is a dirty job but somebody’s gotta do it”) :)

    But it’s true that if someone doesn’t know who the Pet Shop Boys are or the kind of music they are capable of producing, this should no doubt be, the record they should listen first.

    1. Wow! You certainly know your Pet Shop Boys!

      I like your note about the album vs. single/song titles!

      Thanks again so much for reading and your thoughtful comments!