Pet Shop Boys - Behaviour - Review
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critics' view

Unfolding like an elegy for much of what had gone before, Behaviour shifted the Boys from sly commentators to reserved-but-pained participants, with its understated but devastating lead track, “Being Boring.” The first verse presents the singer looking through keepsakes, as one does after losing a loved one. He finds a party invite paraphrasing Zelda Fitzgerald’s “Eulogy on the Flapper,” specifically the line “She refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring.” Boredom was a prickly subject for the pair: Their early deadpan videos and TV appearances were routinely dismissed by clueless critics as generating it.

Set in the ’70s, the next verse depicts the singer leaving his hometown, a mandatory rite of LGBT passage. He softly declares, “I’d bolted through a closing door,” an image evoking both the end of his closeted adolescence and the beginning of fully realized adulthood. By the third verse, which is set in the ’90s, the singer is self-actualized, but reflective: “All the people I was kissing/Some are here, and some are missing.” That simple rhyme still reduces gay men who lived through this era to tears, for AIDS had sorted our intimates into these two categories—those who died young, and those who might soon follow suit, including ourselves. If you hadn’t seen your gay neighbors and friends and former sexual partners around town, chances were they were dead, had gone home to die, or were nursing the dying just like you. “But I thought in spite of dreams,” the survivor sings of his fallen pal, “you’d be sitting somewhere here with me.”

Fashion photographer Bruce Weber shot the song’s lush B&W video, which features models enacting a fantasy version of the parties Tennant attended in the ’70s. The tension between the freedom of Weber’s imagery and the sadness of the third verse makes the eulogy even more devastating, but some fleeting nudity meant that MTV in America had an excuse not to show it. Still, “Being Boring”—ostensibly a dance track, but one featuring fluttering rhythms, a Larry Heard-style deep house bassline that appears only as the album version fades out, a subtle upward chorus modulation that adds sweetness to the sorrow, and a whirring plastic tube conjuring spectral cries—eventually earned its rightful acclaim. A fan site solely devoted to it dwarfs the official web presence of many bands, and on its 20th anniversary, a Guardian critic proclaimed it the greatest single of all time. Even Axl Rose allegedly bemoaned its non-appearance during the duo’s 1991 tour.

That tour, Performance, their first in North America, transformed the staginess of their videos into opulent theater just as Blonde Ambition did for Madonna the year before; in the Pets’ case, it was so over-budget that the well-attended trek still lost half-a-million dollars. And just as the autobiographical Like a Prayer fed Blonde Ambition, the personal nature of Behaviour lent Performance pathos. The dirge that opened the show, “This Must Be the Place I Waited Years to Leave,” affirmed that, like Madonna, Tennant suffered major Catholic damage. The tune is hummable, but the tone intersects opera and Joy Division as it evokes Catholic mass, freezing rain, and grey architecture. No wonder the Pets eschewed the church for wit and disco.

True to their queer sensibility, PSB are intrinsically contrary, even with themselves, and just as their previous release, 1988’s Introspective, is all 12”-length dance numbers, Behaviour is mostly ballads. Even on overt club cuts, its lead single “So Hard” and “The End of the World,” the dance grooves that defined the duo are muted: No more big ’80s drums, no electro rumble or hi-NRG clatter, even if “So Hard” ramps up the trademark orchestral blasts of their previous hits. Rather than the sample-heavy rave bleeps that ruled 1990 UK pop, the album favors analogue synths overseen by co-producer Harold Faltermeyer, the Munich synth whiz who’d been Giorgio Moroder’s key player and had scored with Beverly Hills Cop’s “Axel F.”

But though the instrumentation is mostly as synthetic as before, it’s less pointedly so; the future was no longer as inviting as it had been in the duo’s formative years, when they dreamt of man-machines and home computers. Embracing their humanism to mirror their messages, the pair often blur the boundaries between synthetic and natural sounds: Mirroring the instability of post-communist Russia, “My October Symphony” fuses banging Italo-house piano, “Funky Drummer” syncopation, Marvin Gaye-esque yearning, and the classical strings of Balanescu Quartet, which all blend with the Prophets and Rolands and Marr’s wah-wah guitar so seamlessly that the hybrid suggests Shostakovich going Blaxploitation. You certainly couldn't call it just “synthpop.”

In the booklet for the album’s 2001 deluxe reissue, Tennant paints the unabashed love aria “To Face the Truth” as the story of a man who cannot acknowledge his girlfriend’s infidelities. But like so many PSB songs, it makes more sense in an LGBT context; that his lover is a bisexual who dodges their emotional bond. Having same-gender sex dictates that you’re homosexual, but loving someone of your own gender makes you gay—a step too far for some. “I wonder if you care and cannot bear the proof/It hurts too much to face the truth,” Tennant croons at the top of his tenor. Having just worked with Liza and Dusty, he’d suddenly become a more expressive singer, one here as adept at conveying sincerity as he’d always been at generating irony. The programmed rhythms hail from ’80s R&B, but his vocal is ’70s Bee Gees; had this been on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, we’d all know it.

Lyrically the most old-school PSB-y song of the lot, “How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously?” roasts sanctimonious rock stars who claim to hate fame’s machinations but nevertheless align themselves with the trendiest causes. There’d been plenty of those in the wake of Band Aid, Live Aid, Farm Aid, and “We Are the World,” and they pretty much wiped out the more subversive and often queer “New Pop” movement that spawned the Pets. The album version is set atypically to a New Jack Swing beat, the kind that gave even Boy George a US R&B radio hit with “Don’t Take My Mind on a Trip” the year before, but the seldom heard single/video version remixed it into a more flattering Soul II Soul-style shuffle. Back home, its critique was bolstered by appearing on the flipside of their newly recorded medley of U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” and the Four Seasons’ “I Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” which echoed Boys Town Gang’s shamelessly camp disco-ization of the latter. Bono, who spotted the satirical finger being pointed in his direction, quipped, “What have we done to deserve this?”

As straightforward as “Seriously” is skewed, album closer “Jealousy” goes furthest in a quasi-symphonic direction. Played on keyboards but booming like a massive orchestra, it’s fraught with romantic angst like their earliest work, yet it suits their new phase of unfettered emotionality. The scene-setting opening conjures the outsized ardor of 19th-century art song: “At dead of night when strangers roam/The streets in search of anyone who’ll take them home/I lie alone…” And the rest similarly picks up where Scott Walker’s covers of Jacques Brel left off.

A crooner, not a belter, Tennant sets his vocal understatement against the over-the-top nature of his blinding passion for an unrequited love. This conflict mirrors the LGBT experience itself: You’ve got all this desire that must somehow be contained to a small percentage of the population, lest you find yourself making a pass at someone who might not share your sexuality and who might respond with condemnation or even violence. So you keep your outer voice small and whispery like Tennant’s, but that constant monitoring and muting only intensifies your inner life, and so you bear the burden of these feelings—here represented by the grandness of the orchestration, the despair of the descending vocal melody, the processional horns that bear a stubbornly regal retreat. There’s no apology implied—quite the opposite.

Simpatico women understand this proud juxtaposition: Liza Minnelli considers Tennant and Lowe geniuses akin to Broadway maestro Stephen Sondheim or her dad. Pet Shop Boys critique masculinity the way classic rock bands exude it, but rather than the flamboyance that’s intrinsic to the gay pop star from Little Richard onward, PSB offer the calm control of the outsider looking in, their noses pressed against the shop window.

Having experienced worldwide eminence exactly when their people fell into deeper crisis than ever, they rarely took the easy path, and on subsequent releases like Very’s “Dreaming of the Queen,” they imagined a world in which there were no more lovers left alive. Fortunately, people kept dancing, and Pet Shop Boys still supply their nocturnal soundtrack. Last month, Billboard announced PSB as the all-time top male act on its dance club chart: With last year’s “The Pop Kids,” they landed their 40th hit on that list in 30 years, and 11th No. 1. That they did so with a song as wistful as those on Behaviour makes this achievement truly singular. Embracing disposable pop, they’ve created lasting queer culture just as it was in danger of disappearing. They celebrate the melancholia of being gay.

Barry Walters
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