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Pet Shop Boys, Protracted
on 8 March 2014
The Boys closed the nineties the same way they opened them: with a problematic album.
The best way for me to describe the feeling produced by this album is the fact that it seems uneven and all over the place musically. The beauty of both "Very" and "Bilingual" lied in the fact that both albums were tight, consistent, and thematically related (despite different co-producers in the case of "Bilingual").
Here, the only common thread to these twelve songs is the concept of "Nightlife" going through every lyric and the fact that these songs all tell the same story, from two different viewpoints: The lover wants to have fun ("New York City Boy", "Vampires", "Happiness is an option", "Radiophonic", "Boy Strange") while on the other hand his/her partner is worried senseless (all the remaining tracks except maybe "The Only One", ambivalent). The problem is that by systematically focusing his writing on the same theme, Neil Tennant's lyrics become repetitive and, after a while, boring. This is quite unfortunate as in some cases the lyrics are beautiful (on "I don't know what you want..." for example) but after a couple of songs, the element of surprise is definitely gone. In a way this statement is a tribute to Neil and to the Pet Shop Boys: a lot of the group's success depends on its lyrics - and not exclusively on the music and the tunes.
What about the music then? When listening to the album, it is clear at times that the Boys do not quite manage to go the distance the same way that they could with pretty much all their prior albums (with the exception of "Behaviour." - the other problematic album in the 1990s IMHO). Part of the issue (like for "Behaviour.") will in my view be a producers' problem. "Nightlife" has four producers: the Boys of course, Rollo, David Morales and Craig Armstrong. Armstrong ends up co-producing half of the album. One can understand why: he is a great orchestrator and he was very successful in the prior Noël Coward album produced by Neil Tennant (the song Armstrong performed with Shola Ama is one of the best there). But here his universe seems to be somewhat at odds with the Boys' and the orchestra all too often seems added to the songs rather than be an organic part of them, the way that Anne Dudley and Richard Niles (two much more "natural" classical collaborator for the Boys) could do it. Songs like "The only one", "Footsteps" or the much overrated "You only tell me you love me when you're drunk" are simply not very inspired. Rollo, the second co-producer of the album, manages a bit better although the overall outcome of "Boy Strange" is not totally convincing. The Boys themselves are not devoid of criticism. Their only stand-alone effort, "Happiness is an option" is extremely lame.
But the biggest frustration lies in the fact that, as in "Behaviour.", "Nightlife" offers us some of the best Pet Shop Boys tracks ever. "New York City Boys" and "I don't know what you want..." (reviewed before) show that David Morales is a "natural" Pet Shop Boys producer and that the combination of both universes tends to create magical music. The two opening tracks, "For your own good" (why wasn't this a single?) and "Closer to Heaven" are superb songs, beautifully produced and extremely musical). But the real PSB masterpiece in "Nightlife" is clearly the fantastic duet of the Boys with Kylie Minogue, "In Denial". Right here, the orchestration of Craig Armstrong blends naturally, the vocal chemistry between Neil and Kylie (what a voice!) is superb, the lyrics are very moving and overall the Boys composed a 3-minute opera with two characters and a feeling of time suspended: wow.
Too bad the rest of "Nightlife" is not always up to this beautiful moment of magic.
Please note that the US edition of "Nightlife" included one bonus disc including all the B-sides of the singles released so far ("Screaming", "Silver Age", "Je t'aime moi...non plus", "The ghost of myself", "casting a shadow") as well as a selection of some of remixes (the Morales remix from "what you want" - dull, THe Madkatt courtship 80 witness mix from the same song - better, then four remixes of New York City Boy: The Superchumbo uptown mix - acceptable, The Almighty Definitive mix - definitive indeed, the Thunderpuss 200 club mix - fun, and the Lange mix - seminal. The quality of all these goodies (B-sides plus remixes) could justify one more star to the above review.