By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Pet Shop Boys
White Bread Black Beer
In the mid-'80s, you couldn't tell the one-hit flukes from the long-term superstars. Oddballs dismissible as novelty acts in a more aesthetically stable time possibly portended an unknowable future. If MTV could happen, anything could, and though the Buggles' anticipated radio-staricide was not to be, old dudes frantically moussing themselves for the video cams couldn't yet predict their own roachlike immunity to environmental change. The most Paleolithic of all dinosaurs, Yes, had a new-wavey hit—a good one, even—that some said sampled Kool and the Gang. Ponies rode men, grass ate cows, the world was turned upside-down.
Into this crowded vacuum danced the Pet Shop Boys and Scritti Politti, both seemingly amused, in that knowing British way, that we Yanks thought there were any distinctions between style and substance left to blur in the first place. Was 31-year-old Smash Hits crit Neil Tennant, now channeling the blankly yearning will-to-power of a closeted accountant, a biz-savvy pro who'd sussed the game's new beatwise rules or just a lucky opportunist—an upwardly mobile Peter Gabriel or Murray Head with classier connections? And Scritti's Green Gartside, a post-punk Marxist who'd fulfilled his anti-careerist ambitions with the band's early work on Rough Trade, served up an even livelier metatext with the dance-pop flash of Cupid & Psyche '85. A pomo Prince, as many imagined, or just Duran Duran with footnotes?
The arbiters of corporate memory have answered that question firmly; for anyone in the U.S. who remembers the '80s as they're officially instructed to, the groups' legacies barely extend beyond "West End Girls" and "Perfect Way." But this bottom-line approach to the past, as usual, misses the point. Two decades later, each group is re-evaluating a history that's absolutely unquestioned by anyone who'd even bother to wonder if it exists. The Pet Shop Boys' Fundamental is, as its title suggests, a "back to the roots" gambit—a concept that must tickle the proudly non-organic duo of Tennant and Chris Lowe to no end. And awaiting Scritti Politti's first disc in seven years, White Bread Black Beer, is a retroactive cult of benighted Brits who cutely credit Gartside with inventing R&B, and hip U.S. indie kids nostalgic for an era they weren't alive to scoff at.
Those same fans wisely ignored Gartside's catchy, funky, useless '99 not-quite-comeback, Anomie & Bonhomie (complete with guest rhymes from Mos Def!). So instead, Gartside begins White Bread Black Beer with a subtler nod to hip hop, murmuring "The boom boom bap/The tip-a-tip-tap/That's the beat of my heart." There is no boom boom bap underneath; in fact, no drums at all, not at the start. Then a softly clicking pulse, a gurgling electrobass, and endless anticipation for a big beat that never drops. This is a ballad in remembrance of bangers past, with Gartside reminiscing over "the siren call" of a "yes yes y'all" and namedropping the Hollis Crew the way he once did Derrida.
Set adrift on memory bliss as Green is, you'd expect maybe a Proust reference or something, but what makes his pretensions so winning is that they're rarely that obvious or literal. He's not above a direct joke: On "After Six," he pleads, "Jesus, keep your love away from me." The warm Abbey Road harmonies in which he wraps the dream pop of "Snow in Sun" show that he doesn't mind a clear nod to the sonic past. And the tunes are often as forthright as can be. But the chief delights here are the effect of Gartside's unfailingly pleasant inflections upon polysyllables like "petrococodollar" and his knack for deliberately stranding lines like "If you don't have the wherewithal, you don't need the why" and "First I hit a rock/Then I hit a roll/Now I'm hitting on you" somewhere between sense and nonsense. If this open-ended dodge of meaning feels less liberating than it did in 1985, well, that's history's fault, not Green's.
The Pet Shop Boys lost interest in such twists of irony at about the time U.S. pop audiences lost interest in the Pet Shop Boys. Since then, Neil Tennant's developed a way of singing a potential club hit with an air of wistful regret, as though preoccupied with wilder parties in the past. This time around, it's "The Sodom and Gomorrah Show" that receives this treatment, with Trevor Horn beefing up the beats—just like he did for Yes back when. And like so many recovered ironists, Tennant only realized how much promise the past held after it was lost. While singing a Diane Warren ballad, let alone one called "Numb," might have seemed cynical in the past, Tennant's now just democratically staking a non-Grammy-winner's equal claim to pure schlock—Neil's heart too will go on, dammit.
As megapop has consolidated, in fact, the Boys have been increasingly left to comment from the margins: That "The Night I Fell in Love," their 2002 tale of hooking up with an Eminem-like rapper, failed to significantly enter the pop conversation just shows how one-sided it's become. And there's a disenfranchised air to Fundamental that makes sense, since the title also references our age's reigning -ism, rising up from both the U.S. heartland and the Arab street, and of particularly concern to men who have sex with other men. So sure, "I'm with Stupid" lashes out at Blair 'n' Bush (in that order), and righteously at that. But Tennant seems to sing from the losing side of history, implicitly understanding that from pop to politics, our superstars have never been so roundly condemned—or so immune to criticism.