Earlier this week, we told you the Pet Shop Boys albums on the Parlophone label will be getting expanded reissues. The first releases will be Nightlife, Release and Fundamental — from 1999, 2001 and 2006 respectively. While some may think of the Pet Shop Boys as an eighties band, this period contains some of their strongest work. In fact, Nightlife and Fundamental include some of the best Pet Shop Boys songs of their careers.
So, please, say “yes” to our look at the very best work of the Pet Shop Boys. We promise not to get too introspective about it. Actually, many of our choices are fundamental choices for the perfect nightlife soundtrack. So be on your best behavior and let us know your favorite Pet Shop Boys release in the comments. Stick to English though; we’re not bilingual. Elysium.
1. I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Anymore
Two of Nightlife‘s song titles are particularly memorable because they’re so long — this one and “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk.” Both songs are great, but we had to go with “I Don’t Know…” just because it’s such a tragic portrayal of a relationship falling apart. When Neil Tennant sings lines like “Do you find that it’s worse than it was / Has it gone on too long? Do you mind that it hurts me” you feel the pain in his voice. Still, the pounding drum machine makes it one of those great PSB songs that lets you dance away the pain.
2. Sexy Northerner
This was available on some versions of Release and will be part of the “Further Listening” bonus material on the upcoming reissue. Though Release was a more acoustic album, and a song like “London” may have been a more representative pick, “Sexy Northerner” is just fun. The song is about, as one might imagine, a person from the north of the United Kingdom who is sexy. It might not be deep, but if you can listen to this song and not be singing “It’s not all football and fags” to yourself all day, you’re better off than us.
3. The Sodom and Gomorrah Show
Fundamental, the Pet Shop Boys’ 2006 album, was a triumph. The album was one of the most political in their career — songs like “I’m with Stupid” and “Integral” are against George W. Bush and surveillance of private citizens respectively. Even the songs that aren’t explicitly political reflect the times in which they were recorded. “The Sodom and Gomorrah Show” has a bit of an apocalyptic vibe — that we should embrace life and love because who knows how much longer until the proverbial smack is brought down on humanity.
4. Luna Park
Another Fundamental track, “Luna Park” is one of the more subtly political. In an interview with Andrew Sullivan, Neil Tennant explained the song as:
Someone is looking at a fairground at night and all the lights and people screaming on the Big Dipper and the rifle range and all the rest of it… It’s not a particularly original metaphor, but it’s about why people enjoy being scared and whether that is used politically. I think it is done politically, and I think America at that particular time – the American president and his cohorts – were doing it.
The apocalypse is similarly invoked as in “The Sodom and Gomorrah Show” — the lyrics predict that “A storm is is coming soon / To blow us all away / Like dust on the moon.” Though where “Sodom and Gomorrah” is celebratory, “Luna Park” is cautionary; though it might be fun to be scared — we can’t get too complacent. Though “Sodom and Gomorrah” states “You’ve got to love to learn to live / Where angels fear to tread,” “Luna Park” warns of being happy “with circuses and bread.” Though we enjoy hearing the screams from the “latest horror show,” we have to keep in mind that one day it might be us screaming.
5. Closer to Heaven
“Closer to Heaven” might be an obvious choice — it gave the Pet Shop Boys’ musical its name after all — but then again, there’s a reason for that. “Closer to Heaven” is gorgeous. Much of Nightlife has a darker feel to it; many of its characters are unhappy. We’ve got the closeted dad and the upset daughter of “In Denial.” There’s the narrators of “I Don’t Know What You Want…” and “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk” who aren’t being treated right by the one they love. “For Your Own Good” sees the singer pleading with his lover to stay with him rather than seeing a prostitute. Even in “Happiness is an Option,” the narrator seems like he’s half-convincing himself as well as the listener.
In that sense, “Closer to Heaven” is one of the cheerier songs on the album. The narrator merely isn’t sure if his relationship is falling apart — but he still has hope. Is he near Heaven or Hell? The narrator doesn’t know yet — and isn’t naive — but still hopes “paradise is real.” That hope is what drives the song and much of Nightlife in general. “Closer to Heaven,” in that way, is a capsulized version of the tension that makes Nightlife such an essential album.