Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Surprisingly Good Collection Of Pet Shop Boys Dance-Ballads: Nightlife Is Cool!

The Good: Great musical diversity (within the genre), Some decent lyrics, Good vocals
The Bad: Short, Still a bit familiar in some ways
The Basics: One of the best outings by the Pet Shop Boys, Nightlife is a near-miss on perfection when the band adds musical diversity and backing vocals to their mix!

It always pleases me when I have a listening experience to a group and am disappointed to hear the group bounce back extraordinarily well on a subsequent album. I might be in the minority in disliking the Pet Shop Boys album Bilingual, but with Nightlife, I am proud to sing their praises again. The reason for this is simple – and comes from being immersed in the works of the Pet Shop Boys for the month: the album does not sound quite like any other album the group has done and the result is a dance-pop album that has a richer sound in the vocals and instrumental accompaniment than many of their other works.

On Nightlife, the Pet Shop Boys are creatively alive and many of their songs are richer for the collaborations they make. For sure, some of them sound like throwbacks to prior dance crazes (the opening vocals on “New York City Boy“ sound a lot like the Village People!), but for the most part, the album sounds as fresh as synth and percussion-driven dance music can! One suspects that those who are tired of inane dance music would do well to listen to Nightlife, which has songs both serious and silly and it works wonderfully as a result.

With a dozen songs occupying just over fifty-two minutes on the single c.d., Nightlife is mostly the creative work of the Pet Shop Boys, even if they do have more obvious backing vocals than some of their other albums. The Pet Shop Boys, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, wrote all of the songs and Neil Tennant provides most of the lead vocals. Lowe programs the drums and plays the synthesizers that dominate most of the tracks. As well, the Pet Shop Boys are credited as co-producers for the album. As a result, there is little argument that this is the album they intended to make, at least at the time.

And that album is a surprisingly good one. Musically, the album is more than just synth and drum machines. Many of the songs have the duo accompanied on much richer instruments, like a full orchestra backing the group on six of the songs. The richer sound is used well. Instead of feeling the confined space of a sweaty dance hall, many of the songs – like “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk” – have a more epic sound and feel. The group returns to making power ballads that have a great dance beat and songs like “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk” has a quality that puts it on par with many of the songs on the group's masterpiece, Actually.

Vocally, the Pet Shop Boys have much more overt accompaniment on this album. “Happiness Is An Option” has a rich chorus featuring female vocalists which offset the usual masculine sound of Tennant’s singing. Similarly, the guest vocals dominate the beginning of “New York City Boy” which give it a much more raucous sound than many of Pet Shop Boys’ other songs. Outside the guest vocals adding a new spice to the album and sound of the pop-dance duo, most of the songs do feature Tennant’s extensive range. Tennant whispers through some of “Happiness Is An Option” before he sings at the highest range of his register. He exhibits great range, though, because when he is quieter, he tends to go lower as well. And all the while, he is quite articulate in his performance.

One suspects the reason the vocals are so clear is because the group actually has something they want to say and they want their audiences to hear. Often, the Pet Shop Boys sing about interpersonal relationships – love and strife – and on Nightlife, that is no exception. Lines like “What a performance tonight / Should I react or turn off the light? / Looks like you're picking a fight / In a blurring of wrong and right / But how your mood chances, / You're a devil, now an angel / Suddenly subtle and solemn / And silent as a monk / You only tell me you love me / When you're drunk” (“You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk”) characterize well an abusive type relationship that is almost never explored in pop music, much less dance-pop music.

But the Pet Shop Boys do seem obsessed with the uncomfortable and the symbiotic. Tennant creates a great musical storysong in “Vampires” that is fun as a playful storysong, but is cutting as a metaphor. The song has poetic lines presented with a hypnotic rhythm and I'm surprised it hasn't been used on True Blood (in my memory). But with the poetic lines, “Brother it don't matter / Sister don't worry / Say what you like / I'll do what you want me to do / You're a vampire, I'm a vampire, too / Sun in the kitchen / Boy you're still sleeping / When you get hungry / I'll do what you want me to do / You're a vampire, I'm a vampire, too” (“Vampires”) the Pet Shop Boys create an uncomfortable anthem that speaks to all sorts of people who have had troubled relationships.

Fortunately, not all of the songs are anthems to the uncomfortable. Instead, Nightlife occasionally delves into the delightfully flirtatious. Exploring the excitement of new relationships, the group sings “I don't know you / You don't know me / I wonder what we share / It's just that now / And then you smile / And suddenly I know you care / And I'm the only one for a while / Though you have many reasons / To tell me a lie / I can't help believing / That I should be for you / And you for me the only one” (“The Only One”) and they nail that delightful uncertainty perfectly! The Pet Shop Boys manage to explore a delicious range of human emotions and experiences on Nightlife and lyrically, this is one of their best albums.

Ultimately, Nightlife ought to make people excited to listen to the Pet Shop Boys again. The album sounds different (and good!) and when it is not being depressing with the ballads, it is danceable and entirely fun. Who could ask for more? Actually, I can: I wish the album were longer and had more of the same quality songs on it!

The best track is “Vampires,” the weak link is the less memorable “Radiophonic.”

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 !

    I’m not as enthusiastic as you are with this album. To me, even though there are good songs here, there always are like “Happiness is an option”, “Vampires” and my favorite “I don’t know what you want but I can give it any more” but I have a strange feeling, when I listen to this album because it has no coherence, sometimes it’s very camp and very fierce with tracks like “For your own good” and “New-York City Boy” and other times it’s too mellow like with “You only tell me you love me when you’re drunk”.

    It’s one of the 3 pet shop boys studio albums I don’t either like nor hate like “Fundamental” and “Release”, they are not that good but they are not that bad either. But we are still miles away from their greatest albums like Please, Actually, Introspective, Very & Yes.

    1. It's always interesting to me to see how people interpret the different phases of a musical artist's career. I recall liking this one more than many of the others in the stack when I studied the band and rating it accordingly.

      Thanks for the comment and thanks for reading!