Pet Shop Boys, “Very”

psb very

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #40 – released September 27, 1993)

Track listing: Can You Forgive Her / I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing/ Liberation / A Different Point Of View / Dreaming Of The Queen / Yesterday, When I Was Mad / The Theatre / One And One Make Five / To Speak Is A Sin / Young Offender / One In A Million / Go West

A band’s best work typically does not come after its first greatest hits album, particularly if that compilation sells well or provides a successful career-to-date overview. More often than not, subsequent efforts will pale in comparison: how can the average band compete with its own best work, or at least the perception such a package suggests? For every rare mid-or-late-career triumph, you’ll find ten or twenty albums made by artists who are past their prime, their artistry steadily in decline—an unfortunate but unavoidable fate in as fickle and fluid a cultural landscape as pop music.

Leave it to the Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe to defy this trend. Arriving two years after Pet Shop Boys Discography (a dutiful but illuminating compilation of the band’s UK singles through 1991), Very is the emphatic opposite of marking time or clinging to the coattails of past successes. While no major musical departure from the band’s beloved, foppishly witty, equally cerebral and celebratory synth-pop (a template they would, in fact, later significantly alter on occasion) Very is a crucial turning point in the band’s oeuvre: it altogether sounds louder, more audacious and vivacious and freer than any of their previous work (especially their last studio album, the elegantly muted Behaviour).

You can partially track this change in approach to Tennant’s publicly coming out as gay, which he more or less first did on record via Discography’s two new songs (“DJ Culture” and “Was It Worth It”). Very both acknowledges and revels in this admission, lending context to songs that previously would’ve been all subtext. While this newfound openness can’t help but diminish PSB’s enigmatic allure just a little, it also pushes them into bold, unprecedented lyrical and emotional territory—the album unquestionably lives up to its title. Although their next record, Bilingual (1996) would more closely dovetail with my own coming out, in retrospect Very was just as significant a talisman for me in that process. As much as I wish not to reduce Very to a “coming out” album, it is an inextricable component of it, with more than half of the songs addressing the very notion that freedom comes from openness and candor.

Whereas Behaviour’s first track was the slow burning, contemplative “Being Boring”, Very’s is more a shock to the system. “Can You Forgive Her” practically explodes on contact, its sonic playground of orchestral synth-stabs careening on by at an almost militant, march-like tempo. The song’s narrator addresses a young man whose girlfriend accuses him of retaining romantic feelings for a childhood friend. Although Tennant does not identify the latter as male, he provides enough clues (“You drift into the strangest dreams / of youthful follies and changing teams”) for intuitive listeners to easily make the inference. While Tennant almost pities the young man (damning his appetite for revenge as, “Childish, so childish!”), he’s also on his side, egging him on, reminding him, “She’s made you some kind of laughing stock / because you dance to disco and you don’t like rock.” Much of Very seethes with anger and contempt for being boxed in and held back from whom you really are. Also the album’s lead single (I’ve embedded its totally bonkers video below), “Can You Forgive Her” had a manifesto’s impact—in it, you could practically hear Tennant and Lowe saying, upfront, “This is who we are, and you’re either with us or you’re not.”

This idea of coming clean resurfaces throughout Very. Second track “I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing” replaces the first song’s coming-to-light paranoia with an almost euphoric sense of acceptance. The very song title is all about freeing yourself via thoughts and actions others wouldn’t expect of you; when Tennant tosses off comments like, “I feel like taking all my clothes off / and dancing to the Rite of Spring”, he does so with the glee of someone fully throwing caution to the wind. The sweet, mid-tempo “Liberation” further articulates these feelings, only placing them in a hyper specific context: “Your love is liberation,” he sings in the chorus, and while it’s a common, simplistic statement, coming from Tennant it feels staggering to be this emotionally open and sincere (certainly a long way from “I love you / you pay my rent”). That he does this without getting sappy about it is even more admirable—note the simple yearning and understatement with which he sings the phrase, “You were sleeping on my shoulder”.

Still, a PSB album of nothing but happy love songs would find them truly being boring, and Very has plenty of drama. Some of it is the usual relationship stuff: “A Different Point of View”, where a couple butts heads at seemingly all possible angles of thought and speech; “One and One Make Five”, possibly one of the catchiest songs ever about infidelity that, as a bonus, also incorporates arithmetic; “Young Offender”, where Tennant considers a much younger lover over a plethora of video game noises and dance club beats, playing the self-deprecating elder to the hilt (“I’ve been a teenager since before you were born,” he drily muses); and “One In A Million”, where Tennant pleads with his lover not to leave him but cleverly turns the tables on himself, realizing that he, not his lover, is the anomaly the song’s title suggests.

However, Very’s highlights often cast internal struggles within a wider context. The lush, loping “Dreaming of the Queen” is about the particularly British obsession the title phrase references. Tennant reminisces of having tea with her Royal Highness, along with Princess Diana and an undisclosed “you” addressed in the second person. The song has plenty of that droll PSB humor (listen to how Tennant sings the second half of this couplet: “For I was in the nude / the old Queen disapproved”) but it’s more melancholy than anything, especially at the chorus: “There were no more lovers left alive / no one has survived.” He concludes, “And that’s why love has died / yes it’s true / look it’s happened to me and you.” As much of an AIDS song as “Being Boring”, in the years since Diana’s death, “Dreaming of the Queen” only feels more wistfully sad.

“Yesterday, When I Was Mad” sits at the other end of the tonal spectrum. Like “It’s A Sin”, it has an extended, calm-before-the-storm intro that gives way to a maelstrom of driving techno/rave, Tennant coming off like a deranged professor with his filtered, spoken word vocal in the verses while goofy synth noises wildly bounce all over him. Deliriously over-the-top and completely unapologetic about it, the song would simply be another glorious PSB trifle if not for how Tennant uses it to explore his own newfound openness. Between all of his gloriously bitchy asides, he admits, “I don’t believe / in anyone’s sincerity / and that’s what’s really got to me.” He’s wise enough to understand the consequences of being forthcoming, but also admits, “Then, when I was lonely / I thought again and changed my mind.”

As Very progresses, it becomes clear that personal liberation is only the first step. With “The Theatre”, Tennant and Lowe present a fiery, cathartic “us vs. them” critique of class and gentrification; that it’s purposely done in the style of an Andrew Lloyd Webber showstopper—the very thing its protagonists finds contemptuous, is something few other artists could pull off. “We’re the bums you step over as you leave the theatre,” Tennant and a massed chorus sing as the music’s orchestral swell (complete with sweeping harp glissandos) empowers them like a vast supporting army. The feeling carries over to “To Speak Is A Sin”, which could very well accompany that scene in Far From Heaven where Dennis Quaid’s closeted character enters a gay bar for the first time, finding himself in a strange new space where every man presumably keeps to himself but yearns to make contact with another. Painting a lingering portrait of men “ordering drinks at the bar” as a mournful sax adds a new flavor to the band’s usual electronic palette, it has none of the previous song’s fury, but it recognizes that there’s safety in numbers and at least some hope of redemption in the camaraderie of like-minded souls.

Very concludes by reinforcing this solidarity with a stirring cover of song originally by (of all people) The Village People. When that campy costumed quintet recorded “Go West” in 1979, it was yet another one of their disco-flavored paeans to San Francisco, that liberal gay mecca which welcomed thousands of young small town misfits with open arms. Keeping in line with and neatly summarizing Very’s overall aesthetic, PSB transform the song into an sumptuous orchestral dance floor banger with a loud, manly, operatic chorale complementing Tennant’s lead vocal. As cover choices go, it’s a perfect fit for Very because it is about liberation, about openness, about community. It may be filtered through an idealistic haze, but that doesn’t diminish one whit lyrics as affectingly straightforward as, “There where the air is free / we’ll be (we’ll be) who we want to be.” In tradition of the best PSB songs, it also lends itself to alternate interpretations. After all, it did come out at the height of the AIDS epidemic, which one could easily see as the impetus for its call to arms. The song’s music video even suggests another reading, the title command now directed towards the then-recently dissolved Soviet Union.

Since Very, we’ve had seven more albums from Tennant and Lowe (not to mention soundtracks, original cast recordings, remix and B-side compilations, etc.) that run the gamut from returns-to-form (Electric, Fundamental) to lethargic miscalculations (Elysium) to boilerplate pleasant PSB (Yes). For me (and I suspect most of their fans), nothing tops Very—it not only set the bar incredibly high, it also redefined what kind of bar the band hoped to set. It is essential listening for those struggling with their sexuality, and also for anyone seeking release through coming to terms with who they are for whatever reason.

Up next: Pop without parameters.

“Can You Forgive Her”:

“Go West”:

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