Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Very - Pet Shop Boys

If you are a gay man and don't have Very, you are ordered to stop reading right now and get this album. Now. I don't care how.

Possibly like no other pop album in history, Very is suffused with a powerfully uncloseted gay sensibility, pretty much qualifying it as a concept album. Part of its success is due to the radical idea that being gay is perfectly normal. The Pet Shop Boys - no strangers to the queer world themselves - explore this subculture and find it rife with all the emotional issues that any other subculture experiences. But for some reason, this exploration seems to come from the perspective of a man who has just come out of the closet himself. As such, emotions are heightened; even the most mundane of events become causes for celebration or despondency.

Behaviour, the Pet Shop Boys' previous album, nearly lost itself in miserabilism, jealousy, loss, alcoholism, catfights, and outright depression, and the music followed suit. It was a brilliant, gorgeous album but ultimately the biggest emotional downer in this group's fabulous catalog. Heck, even check the album art: faded pictures of a very glum Neil Tennant, the back of Chris Lowe's head, and a bunch of roses fallen on the ground. Very is the aural antithesis of Behaviour...about a hundred times faster, louder, brighter, more positive, and more explosive. These characteristics, coupled with the Pet Shop Boys' unimpeachable pop instincts, make Very irresistible from beginning to end. (Not coincidentally, the CD case for Very is basically a bright orange Lego, in stark contrast to Behaviour's wan cover.)

Every song is excellent...some, obviously, more than others. So which are the absolute best songs...the creamiest of the creamy? Let's start at what may have provided the impetus for the album as a whole: the revolutionary, deeply personal and fantastically liberating act of coming out...or maybe falling in love at the same time. This feeling is perfectly encapsulated in the ecstatic "I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind Of Thing." After finding new love and a new reason for living, Neil gushes, "Right now, I think I'm running/A race I know I'm gonna win," then in his delirium, threatens to take all his clothes off and dance to the Rite of Spring. It's pure contagious joy for joy's sake, the soul's unquenchable laughter. It feels essential to life. And it doesn't come close to being serious in any way.

That honor goes to the very next song, "Liberation," which may be the most romantic song the Pet Shop Boys have ever dug from their hearts. Neil sings from the perspective of a jaded cynic (or, continuing with the gay theme, someone who was painfully closeted) who has suddenly felt the wild rush that comes with finally opening up his heart to someone. "Your love is liberation," he coos, "to free in me the trust I never had." Disco guitars and luscious strings swirl around him, painting a night out on the town with the man he loves, and at the end, he sings, "On the way back home at midnight, you were sleeping on my shoulder," bringing the ethereal joy of "I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind Of Thing" into the realm of reality. Yes, true love can strike and transform lives immeasurably for the better, this song seems to say. And making that leap of faith to find that love is worth the pain of abandoning your comfort zone, be it simple cynicism or the suffocating restraints of the closet.

But by the fourth song, the honeymoon has ended - far too soon - and interpersonal issues and emotions become tougher to navigate. Fear, ennui, desolation, bitterness, unrequited love, possessiveness, and infidelity all get their due. Then at the end comes Very's tour de force.

For many gay men in the 1970s, the Village People's "Go West" was a call to join their fellow brothers and carve out a hedonistic life together, to reach a promised land where every dream - sexual and otherwise - could perhaps come true. Well, we all know the end of that story. AIDS ended up killing thousands upon thousands of gay men - most needlessly, for reasons I won't go into here. The tragedy and the anguish the gay community suffered was unprecedented for them. The Pet Shop Boys had paid respects to the fallen in a few previous songs, but here, they transform the Village People's triumphant anthem into their most poignant eulogy. Neil sings in a call and response with a men's choir that, despite their numbers, is drowned out by Neil's solitary wan voice. It is not difficult to imagine these men as the voices of gay men from years past, felled by AIDS, and still reaching, futilely, for that promised land. And taken in that perspective, "Go West" becomes unutterably sad.

Yet despite the sorrow that accompanies so many of the songs here, the overwhelming message, communicated either through lyrics or sound, is that the joy at the end of the rainbow is worth the risks, struggles, and anguish to get there. It's this ability to make the bitterest of pills go down with the most delicious of pop candy that make the Pet Shop Boys such a success. And Very is their very best.

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