Synth-Pop

‘Behaviour’ (1990) – Pet Shop Boys

Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, aka Pet Shop Boys, are in a league of their own when it comes to commercial success. Since their formation in 1981, they’ve managed to crack the Top 30 UK Singles chart on 42 occasions, a record that certifies them as the best-selling British musical duo of all time.

The acclaim that has followed them has been fully deserved. No one can dispute how close they came to scaling pop perfection with the sweeping grandeur of ‘West End Girls’ and their rapturous cover of Elvis’ ‘Always On My Mind’ – two of the four number one hits they have scored to date.

If you’re not a follower of ‘PSB,’ then you may not have heard any of the songs on ‘Behaviour.’ Released in 1990, the album peaked at number 2 in the UK, spawning two top 10 singles. This is a work comprised of compelling, bittersweet ballads that spans enough moods to keep the listener engaged throughout, Tennant’s detached, nasally vocals and Lowe’s synth wizardry dovetailing magically to form a refined work of vintage synth-pop.

Opener ‘Being Boring’ starts off on a mournful note with some lonely pads before a funk guitar and rising four-tone bassline are introduced. At 1.20, the track changes mood, favouring more reaching chords, a funkier bassline and quaint synth. This is a beautiful tune sung in a memorable melody. On the surface, it’s about pining for one’s youth, ‘And we were never holding back or worried that / Time would come to an end.’ However,  there’s also references to the 1980s AIDS epidemic, ‘All the people I was kissing / Some are here and some are missing / In the nineteen-nineties.’

 

 

‘This Must Be The Place I Waited Years To Leave’ provides a poignant contrast to the carefree sentiment of ‘Being Boring’ with Tennant’s less than nostalgic memories of school, ‘To our voices nobody’s listening / We shiver in the rain by the touchline.’ This track actually features Johhny Marr on guitar and Angelo Badalamenti over the orchestration which would go a long way to explaining why it sounds so lush! A bleak masterpiece.

 

 

I’ll admit to thinking ‘To Face The Truth’ was a bit schmaltzy on first listening but it has grown on me a lot – it’s actually a song that packs quite a punch, told from the point of view of someone locked in an abusive relationship. Soon after the beginning, we are greeted with a gorgeous, slow piano and sparse drum rhythm that set an intimate backdrop to Tennant’s laments, ‘You know it hurts me when you lie / Sometimes it even makes me cry.’ A reedy, two-tone synth bleats out after Tennant owns up to his denial, ‘it hurts too much to face the truth,’ wavering in motion like the speaker’s resolve this person who is evidently no good for them.

 

 

Meanwhile, the scathing ‘How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously’ pokes fun at self-important rock stars – a very catchy song. ‘Only The Wind’ is the second downbeat track of the album. This one pivots on a skeletal drum beat and lilting piano. It’s an affecting song that hints at domestic violence, ‘There’s nobody hiding behind a locked door / And no one’s been lying, ’cause we don’t lie anymore.’ Sung in an unforgettable, elegant melody, Tennant’s voice seems about to falter at points, enhancing the sense of high emotion, ‘My nerves are all jangled but I’m pulling through / I hope I can handle what I have to do.’ These guys really know how to nail a pop ballad!

 

 

The drum break from The Stone Roses’ ‘Fool’s Gold’ seems to have been borrowed for ‘My October Symphony,’ lending a rolling tempo for those euphoric ‘ooh’s and ‘ahh’s to coast on. Lowe crafts a loose, seductive beat with those occasional orchestral flourishes lending the track a graceful, bittersweet air. The idea behind this song is also clever: Tennant wrote it from the perspective of a Russian composer who is pondering how to keep his music relevant after the demise of communism,

‘Shall I rewrite or revise
My October symphony?
Or as an indication
Change the dedication
From revolution to revelation?’

 

 

Next comes the jittery, lead single, ‘So Hard.’ It returns to the theme of infidelity alluded to on ‘To Face The Truth,’ however this time the duplicity works both ways, ‘I double-cross you / And you get mysterious mail.’  This one was designed with the dance floor in mind with its frantic, acid house rhythm. ‘Nervously’ is another song that hearkens back to youth, the speaker recalling his first moment of sexual awakening, ‘I was nervous when we stopped to speak / And the world came crashing around my feet.’ Giddy, swirling synths are cleverly used to insinuate sweaty palms and butterflies.

‘The End Of The World’ is a cracking tune that smacks of teenage melodrama, ‘Floods of tears and doors slamming / Stamping feet across the landing.’ It seems the narrator could be offering his teenage self some reassuring relationship advice, ‘If someone tried, you’d realise / It’s just a boy or a girl / It’s not the end of the world.’ There’s a wistful guitar that rings out to underscore these lines, echoing their consolatory sentiment.

 

 

The album bows out on a melancholic note, Tennant exploring the obsessive impulses that can sometimes worm their way into relationships, ‘Where´ve you been? / Who´ve you seen? / You didn´t phone when you said you would.’ It’s certainly a gut-wrencher with the piano, strings and those sombre trumpets on the outro all helping achieve this effect.

 

 

Throughout ‘Behaviour’ there is a dark, brooding thread that knits the album together. Other reviews refer to a certain ‘autumnal’ quality that this record exudes and it’s not difficult to imagine why – there is a distinct feeling of loss evident in its tackling of nostalgia and infidelity that does uncannily recall the tainted yellow, brown and orange shades of the season. No better time to listen to it than now then!

Rating: 4.5/5

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