Little things I should have said and done

Another superb piece by Tom at FreakyTrigger on the Pet Shop Boys’ “Always On My Mind,” the Christmas Number One of 1987 in England, where these things matter. What struck me most about Willie Nelson’s version, which I heard years after the PSB’s, was its guilelessness, humility. Nelson’s courtly delivery evoked the parable of the prodigal son — a rake who’d wandered the word from sin to sin and returned chastened, ready for the rest of his life. I hear little humility in Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe’s version; the hi-NRG beats and orchestral synths thrust Tennant’s thoughtlessness in listeners’ faces. It’s the character in “It’s a Sin” months later, having decided that decadence was awesome.  But he wants it all: he wants his partner to forgive him when he (inevitably) wanders off the reservation again. Tennant’s vocal here is extraordinary considering that anyone else would have gotten swamped by the arrangement. First he’s going nyah-nyah-nyah in his partner’s ear by switching from ascending to descending flat notes on the verses (“Maybe I-I-I-I didn’t treat y-o-u-u-u/Quite as G-O-O-D as I sh-ou-ou-ould…), then he rises to the challenge of those celestial synths on the chorus. He’s going to keep trying to become worthy of the attention lavished on him. In the comments section of Tom’s post, “punctum” nails perhaps Tennant’s greatest moment, which takes place as the song fades: “Tennant, strolling out of sight at the far end of the horizon, turning back briefly and saying, `Maybe I didn’t love you.'”

I’ve always taken this song for granted because it’s so perfect, as near an approximation of what makes (made?) the Pet Shop Boys special. Also, “Always On My Mind” encapsulates what makes homosexual love songs singular and, to others, exotic; you just don’t hear this tension between distance and immersion in heterosexual ones. What a lovable rogue Tennant plays here. It’s clear from his vocal why the relationship persists: caddishness as wit. “Always On My Mind” makes a fitting elegy for the end of the Pet Shop Boys’ American chart glory; at Number Four, this almost matched the chart peak of Nelson’s version.

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