Romantics cautious of wearing their hearts on their sleeves, ironists who don’t disdain feeling, Pet Shop Boys make music that embraces the emotionalism of pop while remaining wary of anything that might cheapen that emotion. Rooted in the dance records that first drew Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe together nearly 20 years ago, the music of Pet Shop Boys also owes a debt of sensibility to the long line of Englishmen, from Noel Coward to Bryan Ferry, whose sophisticated cleverness masked the wellsprings of feeling at the heart of their work. Slow down the brittle wit of Coward’s “Private Lives,” a friend once said to me, and you have F. Scott Fitzgerald. Get beneath the thumping disco beat of Pet Shop Boys’ seventh full-length album, “Nightlife,” and you have a Sinatra album.
Musically, “Nightlife” seems to be taking off from “Saturday Night Forever,” a piece of classic disco that closed the Pets’ last album, “Bilingual” (1996). Though “Nightlife” boasts the work of producers like Craig Armstrong (who has worked with Massive Attack), Rollo and David Morales, it owes less to what’s happening in house music and drum ‘n’ bass than it does to the disco of the late ’70s and early ’80s, most explicitly on “New York City Boy,” a pumping Village People homage replete with butch male chorus. But “New York City Boy” is a celebration of being young and on the loose in Manhattan (going to clubs, buying the hottest remixes), and the rest of “Nightlife” concerns itself almost exclusively with mature romantic disappointment.
The title “Nightlife” implies time out with drinks, laughs, friends; but the mood of the album is much more akin to the bookends of those good times — the expectation of getting ready to go out (almost always better than the real thing) and the letdown of coming in afterwards. “Never been closer to heaven/Never been farther away,” the Pets sing on one track. That’s the expectation and disappointment of night life (and “Nightlife”) in a nutshell. That Pet Shop Boys have chosen to explore this territory on an album whose sound — a huge, steady, unstoppable beat with short bursts of strings used as rhythmic punctuation — harks back to the moment of dance music’s greatest popularity is the kind of tension and contrast they specialize in; it’s like the way (on 1993′s “Very”) they recast the “See You in San Francisco” utopia of the Village People’s “Go West” as “See You in Valhalla” mournfulness.
You hear the tension of “Nightlife” on the opening track, “For Your Own Good,” a plea directed to a lover to stay in instead of going out clubbing. “Life isn’t easy/So why don’t you stay/With the lover you need/And not the devil you pay,” Tennant sings, capturing something of the if-you-have-to-ask-you-know-the-answer naiveti of the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” Right behind the plaintiveness of his vocal you hear the irresistible allure of a disco beat. In echo to his singing “come on, call me,” you hear the same line sung by a black diva (Sylvia Mason-James) — a siren song to the night life, against which his offer of loving domesticity doesn’t stand a chance.
The feel of “Nightlife” would be nostalgic if it weren’t so downbeat. There’s real poignancy in Pet Shop Boys’ juxtaposition of music that calls up a youthful past with an adult state of mind. Coming home from a club with a pounding head, wondering if you imagined the signals you picked up from a special stranger — as does the man in “Radiophonic” — feels very different in your 40s than in your 20s; romance may still be as perplexing, but there’s something melancholy (and humorous) in having had time to become familiar with the doubts.
Hope in these songs is as evanescent as the dream staircase made of cigarette smoke in “Deep in a Dream” — like on “Footsteps,” the gorgeous lullaby of uncertainty that closes the album (a song that could be heard as a prequel to the old standard “Cottage for Sale”). On “Only One,” Tennant sings “It’s just that now and then you smile/And suddenly I know you care/And I’m the only one,” and he takes a pause just long enough for the warmth of that realization to sink in before adding, “for a while.” At moments like this, Tennant, with his high, clear, lovely voice, a voice that has overcome its thinness to seem more expressive with each new album, might be a world-weary version of the Fleetwoods’ Gary Troxel, whose tenor was the most keening voice of romantic longing in ’50s pop.
With their signature dryness, the Pets keep the poignancy mostly implicit — and no doubt, for some, too distant. Critics have often cited the cleverness of Tennant’s lyrics as proof of that “distance.” But for Tennant, wit is a means of precision, of fixing the emotional locus of a given situation. There are plenty of ways to ask a lover whether their infidelity was serious or just a fling. But has anyone ever asked that question with less slop than “Was it cracking the code? Was it filling in time?” That line appears in the album’s first single, the gloriously (and somewhat elliptically) titled “I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Any More,” in which a man confronts his philandering lover with a series of clipped questions — “Did you get what you want? Do you know what it is? Do you care?/Is he better than me? Was it your place or his? Who was there?/Did you think it was wrong? Do you find that it’s worse than it was?/Has it gone on too long? Do you mind that it hurts me because/You’re breaking my heart.” The questions progress, as carefully as a short story’s delineation of character, from controlled accusation to helpless revelation.
That sense of a finely crafted vignette is strongest in “In Denial.” What other band would even attempt a song like this, let alone pull it off so beautifully? A duet with Australian pop star Kylie Minogue, the song is about the reunion between a gay father and his disapproving daughter. Switching between what they say to each other and what they’re afraid to say out loud, the song posits the daughter’s callow certainty that he can change (“You should be quitting all these/Queers and fairies/And muscle Marys”) against the father’s weariness of life in general (“My life is absurd/I’m living it upside down/Like a vampire working at night/Sleeping all day/A dad with a girl who knows he’s gay”). What you hear as you listen are the crossed wires of pride and hurt and age getting in the way of the connection the two are eager to make. And that makes the tentative rapprochement that the song ends on — as their voices blend on the shared, unspoken question, “Can you love me anyway?” — even more touching. This is Pet Shop Boys’ version of a big, teary pop payoff and a sign of their understatement and maturity. Why jerk tears when you can earn them?
There were unlikely alliances on view last week at the closing night of Pet Shop Boys’ first American tour in eight years at Manhattan’s Hammerstein Ballroom, though the show took a while to work up to a pitch. The first half often felt like a rock concert as imagined by Robert Wilson, deliberately paced and working off a plan that corresponded to some private logic. In addition to percussionist Danny Cummings, the only people onstage were Tennant and Lowe (who didn’t move from behind his keyboards) and their quintet of back-up singers (Mason-James, Keith Anthony Fluitt, L. Steve Abram, Billy Cliff and John James).
Stalking around the striking and enigmatic set designed by London-based Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid — a large, slanting “L” shape on different levels, upon which graphics were projected — the Pets seemed at times a bit unyieldingly wedded to the concept. They have said that, since “Nightlife” is a less personal album (ha!), they decided to adopt a “professional” look. What that turned out to be was spiky orange wigs, dark glasses, satiny black overcoats that opened to reveal slim gray suitcoats and blousy black-and-white culottes. The most audacious move was when Tennant announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, Dusty Springfield”; film clips of the late singer appeared as the group performed its duet with her, “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” (the hit that returned Dusty to mainstream pop consciousness in 1987), complete with her recorded vocal. What could have seemed merely exploitative instead became a very touching tribute. Nobody, in their hearts or in the song, was about to take Springfield’s place.
Appearing without the costumes after the intermission, the Pets made an immediate connection with the audience. One of this half’s pleasures was the unlikely sight of Tennant strumming an acoustic guitar while surrounded by the backing vocalists (“the Von Trapp family singers,” he called them) for the lovely “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk” and “Se A Vida E.” But it was during the next number, “I Don’t Know What You Want …” when all the singers surrounded the stoic figure of Lowe, that the performance achieved a meaning more basic and more moving than any of the conceived staging. The contrast between the robust voices of the backing singers and Tennant’s own reedy one had been drolly humorous all evening; but the harmony they achieved in this section anything but. Part of the beauty of the combination was that it was, of course, blacks and gay men who were responsible for the music that has been Pet Shop Boys’ inspiration all along.
For me, the emotional peak of the evening came on their version of the Elvis Presley hit “Always on My Mind.” The Pets have always performed the song as pop deconstruction, laying bare the caddishness at the tune’s heart. This night, it meant something else — not the mea culpa of a man who’s been too preoccupied to care, but Pet Shop Boys’ way of making sure their audience knew exactly what lay beneath the duo’s surface reticence. At one point Tennant leapt into the audience to greet the fans crammed up front. It was a sweet gesture, the perfect one to follow the words he had just sung, “And I guess I never told you/I’m so happy that you’re mine.” You’d have to have been asleep to think otherwise.