Saturday, December 14, 2019
Pet Shop Boys: Release (2002)
Release is the result of an exceptionally productive series of recording sessions initiated a year after the completion of Pet Shop Boys' uneven, image-shaking Nightlife, and like that record it makes much of the idea of reinvention. The hype at the time concentrated on the deceptive portrayal of this as Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe's move toward warmth, toward an organic guitar-based sound, away from arch ironies, wacky hairdos, computer animation. (Those who've paid close attention will be familiar with this as a nearly constant career path for the duo's LP discography, from Please and Actually onward; almost always they follow a brash ground-up, visually audacious reimagining of themselves with a pulling back of the curtain to show off who they really are.) Not "back to basics" so much as a first encounter with basics. This is largely a coy bit of marketing; in fact, the album was recorded in the usual synth and programming-heavy fashion, with many of the supposedly organic sounds actually just being the result of major progression and innovation in electronic music. But Johnny Marr does audibly contribute to several tracks, there is certainly more here that resembles traditional, if soft, rock music than usual, and there's no doubt that Tennat and Lowe's songwriting approach -- modest, emotional and drenched with melancholy -- stands in extreme contrast to the impression-making four-on-the-floor anthems on Nightlife and the fervent, ambitious optimism of Very and Bilingual. The main distinction is how slow and contemplative everything is, and the final effect is a plainspoken record that can feel like a most welcome salve.
As ever, the title has two divergent suggestions: firstly, another in the run of absurdly minimalist, matter-of-fact labels that brought us Very and Please and Actually and Alternative and a song called "Single"; of course it's a release, nothing more and nothing less. (Maybe significant, by the way, that Revolver was once UK slang for a 12" record.) But also, as ambiguously echoed by the carnivorous plant on the cover -- which seems in some strange way to be wailing out in a kind of surrender -- "release" is catharsis, an escape from tension and despair, a sigh of relief, and for all the anxieties that constantly permeate Tennat's writing, it is this sensation that seems to permeate so much of this record, which stands as a unique installment in PSB's long career, with a communicative compassion. It felt very reassuring to hear Tennant's voice again after what seemed far too long in 2002, especially on a song as generous and welcoming as "Home and Dry," and the weathered mode of this music has made returning to it quite valuable in the years since.
The landscape that Release entered was wildly different from the one that greeted Nightlife in 1999, when the parameters of clubbing and end-of-history abandon were still more or less in place. It can be hard now to remember what a bizarre time the early 2000s were in the aftermath of 9/11, and the atmosphere of fear and dread that overtook social life and culture on an international level. Nightlife had been the first PSB album from which AIDS felt almost completely absent (with, to be sure, some residue from the attendant anxieties in "In Denial" but an audacious return to freedom on "New York City Boy"), and now Release is the first transmission from a world undergoing incomprehensible levels of upheaval, even though most of it was recorded by the moment everything changed. There was a sensation in those days of being unmoored and uncertain, and sadly it's one that hasn't entirely left since then; however, the jingoism, violence and puritanism of the three years just after 9/11 is hard to deny as some sort of nadir, when all voices of reason seemed entirely drowned out. And even though Neil isn't necessarily singing about any of that, in the one-two punch that opens this record, joined later by the wistful, unapologetic immigration narrative "London," the resignation and welcome he expresses feel deeply vital, especially when he immediately turns it around into a raw examination of his own insecurities.
First single and album opener "Home and Dry" was accompanied by the most controversial Pet Shop Boys video to date, a boldly minimalist, amateurishly shot paean to the communion and dietary scrounging of rats in the London Underground. Anger and consternation greeted the clip in Britain and its rather intense nonconformity, this being an age when videos mattered a hell of a lot more than they do now, was widely blamed for the single and album's relatively lackluster chart performance -- though the song was still a sizable hit in England and on American dancefloors, not surprisingly since it's one of the group's most beautiful and well-produced songs ever. Despite some sparing and stylistically appropriate use of Autotune, the warts-and-all ideology of Wolfgang Tillmans' video is matched by the way that Tennant embraces the fact of being weathered by the years; but he's as assured as ever, and he and Lowe have written a celebration of love and security that sounds exactly like what it's about: expounding on the massive universe ("there's a plane at JFK") from the comfort of clean bedsheets, matching its enraptured breathlessness with genuinely bracing intimacy. It's kind of an embrace, an assertion that despite all that's happened, everyone still belongs here.
"Home and Dry" closes out with Lowe repeatedly speaking the words "we're going home" in his usual determined, steely monotone. It sounds like he's trying to dispel the fears of the entire world, but he's also referencing the Beatles; Paul McCartney ends "Two of Us," one of the most beloved of his love songs for Linda Eastman, with the same spoken words before John Lennon whistles out into the fade. Part of the point may be just to make plain that Tennant and Lowe intend to carry themselves forward as an infallible team through a third decade, even as the ground shakes under them; but it's also a statement of the kind of pop mood they're aspiring to evoke here. (The Beatles fan in the group is almost certainly Tennant, as Lowe's relative distaste for rock music is well-known and a running joke; there is also a direct lyrical nod to "A Day in the Life" in 1996's "Metamorphosis.") The Beatles allusions in the tremendous song that follows "Home and Dry," "I Get Along," are more abstract but no less striking -- it's a melodic nod to Britpop and by extension to its grandfathers, with a particular resemblance to George Harrison's melodic sensibility (Harrison died the month work on Release was completed) and a bridge whose delivery (listen to the way Tennant sings the word "diverted") shoots for the pleasing rawness of Rubber Soul... but perhaps more significant is the act of naked self-examination the song initiates. It's not the first or the last time the band would issue a song that sounded achingly personal, but one of the few in which Tennant sounds actually vulnerable, given that his tendency to hide behind layers of cleverness and characterization have been a hallmark of the band's work since the beginning. Whether it's as direct a breakup song as it seems to be or not, "I Get Along" is the most devastatingly direct bit of exposure he's permitted since the b-side "Your Funny Uncle," about the loss of a loved one to AIDS. And Lowe dutifully takes the very unusual step, also common to "Uncle," of removing all evidence that this is a dance group.
The song is lengthy and pointed, tellingly detailed in its chronicle of a fraying affair, though Tennant typically deferred questions by claiming it was about politics. But even if it is, it isn't, you know? The lyrics are perfect, the melody astonishing, and the group proves adept at concocting a midtempo rock ballad that's as effective and moving as "Kings Cross" or "Only the Wind," and the mixture of actual hurt and tearful resilience in the words and vocal ("I've been trying not to cry when I'm in the public eye... stuck here with the shame and taking my share of the blame while making solemn plans that don't include you") absolve any sense that the group is stretching too far from their comfort zone. These two opening cuts sound potentially like a new beginning for PSB, a totally different direction; as it would turn out, this is really the only time they'd ever attempt such straightforward pop again. ("What Have I Done to Deserve This?" is a fair antecedent but is beholden to very different and much less mainstream traditions.) It was months before I even noticed that the rest of Release never really lives up to its opening numbers in all their pain and loveliness; but strangely, it never seemed to really matter much.
That isn't to say the rest of the album is lackluster; in fact, nearly all of it is upper-tier Pet Shop. The third single "London" takes a more traditional approach to the same sort of languid mood; it's beautiful, sumptuous song full of longing and grit, but it's also a character sketch, here of a pair of immigrants' journey to Britain for a better life -- therefore its vaguely leftist, unmistakably humane but appropriately complex messaging seems prescient in a way that the rest of the album, very unabashedly a product of 2002, does not. (Please note that this isn't a knock; music that captures its time is important, particularly if it does so in a way that continues to resonate. It is not a complaint that Benny Goodman records evoke the time in which they were recorded; rather, that they do so even for audiences who weren't there is a major artistic achievement.) Like "High and Dry" it toys with the then-ubiquitous innovation of Autotune (this was the first post-"Believe" PSB album), which would quickly be shunned by just about every stripe of music fan, but they use it well in both songs. Oddly, of all Release's songs "London" is most evocative of the grand melodies of the Very period, a well to which they had not returned since that watershed album.
A personal favorite track of mine is the instantly dated but simple and charming "E-Mail," a very Neil Tennant analysis of the effect of modern communication on romance that is -- even now -- surprisingly eloquent, and fully aware of its own out-of-touch ironies. It's probably the most on-the-nose song about the early years of web courting with the exception of Aaron Carter's long-forgotten "My Internet Girl," but again, as is typical of PSB, it explores day-to-day life and its attendant insecurities (and those that accompany long-distance adoration) with a cunning wit and sensitivity -- "some things can be written down that we're too shy to say" -- that only Stephin Merritt among contemporary pop composers can remotely match. Chris Lowe is clever to pair it all with a grinding, slick porno beat that plays up the cheerful corniness of the enterprise. And I would be lying if I said that the fact I started my first two relationships through message boards and email doesn't give me some sentimental attachment to the song (I would also be lying if I said I did not include it on at least one mix CD for a girl; yikes) -- and I think its wistfulness is captured well by its use as the coda for the "I Get Along" video, which consists of a bunch of models carousing around having a nice time weeks after 9/11, a yearning tombstone for a dead decade. Laid against the shifting culture, the florid album closer "You Choose," which romantically elucidates on what some find a very non-romantic concept, that falling in love is a choice, seems almost defiantly quaint, but Pet Shop Boys' reminder of the unchanging utility and importance of love itself is, like so much of this album, a comfort in a dark time.
The scattered remarks that the record thoroughly avoids beats seemed to be based on a cursory glance at the PR materials and on the fact that "I Get Along" is such a monster of a song that it overshadows much of what's around it; in fact, Lowe gets a couple of major synth-heavy showcases here. "The Samurai in Autumn" is the kind of ominous banger that might well have been saved for a b-side or a Disco volume in the old days. (In fact, there was enough fan backlash against the slow tempos of Release that Disco 3 arrived very soon afterward. For my part, I've always liked the outliers in PSB's output, starting way back with "Later Tonight" and "It Couldn't Happen Here," but any band that ends up with this kind of hallowed cult status is to get some flack for straying from norms, and I'm grateful that Tennant and Lowe -- unlike, say, Depeche Mode, who I also love -- have never really let this talk them out of experimentation.) It's surprisingly stark and urgent in the vein of "Euroboy" but carries through the ambiguously dour but resilient moods of the rest of the disc while also recalling the melodic seriousness of Behavior. And "Here" is the kind of hook-driven dancefloor cut that fans tend to wait around for, instantly recognizable as Pet Shop without being stereotypical. Tennant shoots for showtune energy, Lowe gives it a memorably nocturnal vibe subsumed in the kind of strangely lively emotion dance music is best at capturing, and it's a snapshot of eccentric clubbing in 2002 just like Nightlife and Bilingual were for their respective eras. And once again, Neil brings it home with the perfect sentiment: "Call it what you want, you've got a home here."
There are less graceful moments, and admittedly more than usual of them among the better PSB albums. "Birthday Boy" is probably the only dud, primarily because six and a half minutes is too long for its dunderheaded and facile metaphor, pedestrian vocal and arrangement, and amausingly overdriven key changes. Its lyric is so awash in bland suggestion as to feel like one of Paul Simon's English class interludes, and it suffers from a shitty guitar or imitation-guitar solo that I refuse to believe comes from Marr. Somewhat stronger is "Love Is a Catastrophe," which sadly can't live up to its wonderful title -- it is a traditional Neil Tennant whinge with a touch of "Dreaming of the Queen" and "It Couldn't Happen Here" but without the aural appeal of those songs. Next to "You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk" from Nightlife, it's lyrically the most Magnetic Fields-like of all PSB songs, but presumably Merritt et al. wouldn't let it out with this level of ridiculous melodrama, and he also would never sing it with the same passion as Neil, which changes its tone entirely.
That brings us to the most attention-grabbing of all Release's songs, and the one that essentially cursed it to a status as a bit of a novelty album. It's the one time in history that Pet Shop Boys managed to get the attention of Dr. Dre, enough to issue a mild diss in response. In retrospect, it feels like the Eminem controversy would have seemed very much yesterday's news by 2002, akin to Peter Gabriel putting out a hit piece on Jerry Springer that same year, but my memory is that "The Night I Fell in Love" got PSB considerable mainstream music news coverage in the U.S. for the first time since, roughly, Introspective (1988). And in fairness, Eminem's homophobia and the music community and press' response to same had been the subject of a firestorm from 1999 to 2001, and presumably the dust hadn't quite settled; and of course, Eminem is even now -- for whatever reason -- still a big star. The key moment of the circus, which had PTA members wringing hands and Larry King and Chris Matthews (who thought Eminem was "a bunch of guys" due to his passing glance at the video for "The Real Slim Shady") weighing in at absurd length on cable news, came at the 2001 Grammy awards when, amid widely reported protests from GLAAD, a blustering speech was given about how this was a free speech battle just like the PMRC vs. backmasking and "Darling Nikki" and all that, just like Ray Charles mixing sacred and profane, just like people getting arrested for selling 2 Live Crew CDs -- none of which had jackshit to do with the gay community's objections to Eminem -- followed immediately by a performance of "Stan" in which Eminem was joined by (noted PSB fan) Elton John. The entire charade was oddly performative: the suggestion was that yes, Eminem's rhetoric was harmful, but then again, so what? He's so smart! He's a journalist for poor white communities! He spits at blank words a minute! He uses puns! Plus free speech means no one should ever have accountability for anything they say! Etc.
In Tennant and Lowe's response to all this, Neil puts on his actorly voice and portrays, as revealed in the song's punchline, an underage boy who sleeps with Eminem in a one-night stand. For those who remember how inescapable Eminem was back then, there's no way to know how this snapshot of the cultural moment, which includes an amusing direct reference to "Stan" itself, would play now to someone unaware of the context. My suspicion is that while it's a strong topical piece taken in isolation, it brings the album down and fits badly with it both thematically and musically -- though Lowe blesses it with another perversely sensual soundscape calling some of the filthy remixes of "We All Feel Better in the Dark" to mind, it's maybe the first time in the band's history that songcraft has intentionally taken a back seat to ideology, with everything predicated on an audience paying attention to the words and focusing on the target of their satire. (This would come up later in the group's history on the anti-Blair number "I'm with Stupid" and the threadbare Trump-era Agenda EP.) Despite these issues, though, it is a rather impeccable and in some ways brilliant piece of vindictive comedy, and what makes it so incisive and playful in comparison to something like Ben Folds' toothless, vaguely racist rap-metal attack "Rockin' the Suburbs" is how it spins the defenses by Eminem, the RIAA and the rapper's fans and critical supporters right back against them, specifically the fact that none of the above ever had a half-decent response to the homophobia question much as Eminem mentor Dr. Dre never had an answer for the misogyny question. When Tennant's wide-eyed character wonders aloud, now that he's fucked Slim Shady himself up the ass in a night of hedonistic splendor, why so many people think he hates gay people, all the nameless-here-forever-more star does is shrug. The line of thought ends there, unresolved, and somehow there's nothing truer or more damning, like the adults in Sesame Street telling Big Bird that Mr. Hooper died "just because."
More than anything, however, "The Night I Fell in Love" works because of Tennant's vocal performance, which is, without hyperbole, utterly magnificent. He modulates perfectly to capture the male groupie completely under the thumb of his idol, appropriates hip hop language without even as much condescension and wink as one can arguably read from Eminem himself, and in the moments when he repeats the "secret lovers" line and sounds like he's on the verge of a quiet orgasm when he claims that the world's most celebrated white rapper "was passionate," he absolutely writhes in the rightness of the moment in a way that's infectiously nasty. The inevitable question is, who has lasted longer, Eminem or Pet Shop Boys? In this regard, the duo shoot themselves in the foot by dedicating so much energy to a hatefuck of what amounts to a fad; sure, Eminem is still something of a hit-maker and has a legacy now, but who still really thinks about the moment when his lyrics were the subject of all this breathless analysis, except when they're reminded of it by something like this? It limits the record's utility now. One is reminded of how much energy some of us spent railing against dreadful multiplatinum bands like Creed, little knowing that their earnest machismo would be a speck in the rear-view within well under a decade.
But Pet Shop Boys have been flourishing for thirty-seven years now, and while the larger culture has failed to acknowledge them, it has also moved with them, and they with it. Release marks a point both when their instincts paid off as they so frequently have and when they hedged just a bit, to comment more than usual on the changing culture. In its worst moments it's a mirror held up to a long-gone moment; in its best it suggests a durability and wisdom that can be hard to explain to outsiders of the group's fanbase but that, to the initiated, can be life-saving.