THE EMOTIONAL SOFTENING of the Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant has been one of this decade's great gifts to pop. With 1993's Very, the singer discarded the ironic distance he and fellow Shop keeper Chris Lowe had maintained while acquainting themselves with the top of the charts. "I feel like taking all my clothes off/And dancing to The Rite of Spring," he declared on "I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind of Thing," a title that could have summed up the warm, direct songs surrounding it. The notoriously prickly figure had shifted his outlook from "I love you/You pay my rent," to, "I love you," period, and the Boys' corresponding slip in recorded output--from an album every 15 months or so to an album every three years--suggested encroaching contentment. Perhaps the life that Tennant sounds like he loves is taking up more and more of his time.
This internal warming might have steered the Pet Shop Boys completely toward mawkishness, and their new Nightlife does on occasion slide into banality. "Happiness is an Option" and the early-Bowie homage "Boy Strange" find Tennant sounding awkwardly touchy-feely, and when he and duet partner Kylie Minogue climax on "In Denial" with a drawn-out, "He's gaaay," he sounds more like your cool uncle than your worried aunt. Most of the time, though, Nightlife sounds as effortlessly chic as the Boys ever have. "For Your Own Good" (co-produced by Rollo of the epic-house band Faithless) and the falsetto-chorused "Closer to Heaven" nod toward majestic Eurotrance, with poignant and plangent results. The false ending of the nakedly emotional devotional pledge "Footsteps" ("As long as I hear your footsteps in the dark/That's all I need") sets up a surging reprise as affecting on the 20th listen as on the first. And then there's the album's most swaggering moment: "New York City Boy," co-produced by New York house king David Morales, is screaming to become the Big Apple's permanent Gay Pride anthem--that men's chorus! That blurry, filtered disco horn line on the bridge! And you haven't heard anything this year till you hear the gusto with which 45-year-old Brit Tennant shouts, "That's the bomb!" Here's to Tennant's life: Let's hope it keeps yielding records this good.
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