Queer heroes because fabulists, insisting on irony as a way of life that, rather than mitigating or cheapening the lusts of his male characters, intensifies experiences as casual as a glance exchanged or a drink bought, Pet Shop Boys have brought the wisdom.
If Lou Reed made me realize I was gay, and Bowie made me insouciant about it, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe taught me the semaphore. Until 2002’s Release they never, uh, released a dull album, and until 2012’s Elysium a bad one. Enjoying gay literary fiction is difficult because Tennant-Lowe have written the most perspicacious of my lifetime.
1. Please (1986)
With beats stiffer and vocals blanker than they would be again, Tennant and Lowe record the gayest album of their career. Anticipation is a stimulation for the guys in these songs, careerists and would-be hunks catching late trains because they want lovers they eye on the dance floor. For listeners who dig concepts, Please works as a song cycle. In the last song the Tennant character even settles down with that lover but not without warning him: “You may not always love me/I may not care.”
2. Behaviour (1990)
My first PSB album. The Boys hired Harold Faltermeyer to bring disco beats, they brought the density, which included Shostakovich, the Russian Revolution, matches when both lovers have given up smoking, jealousy, and too much time listening to George Michael records. The segue between “Nervously” and “The End of the World” is the most poignant in their repertoire.
3. Introspective (1988)
Oh wait — Pet Shop Boys already embraced lyrical density two years earlier, and you can dance to it. “I’m Not Scared,” written for Eighth Wonder, points the way. I’m a sucker for rising/falling sequencer lines.
4. Very (1993)
A critics act since the Reagan era, PSB got universal acclaim for Neil Tennant’s newfound sexual transparency. Uh, what were “I Want a Lover,” “Why Don’t We Live Together,” “Always on My Mind,” and “Nervously”? Whatever — these are all good songs except “Liberation.” I edge closest to “Young Offender,” both prophecy and gayer than the duo’s straight boosters.
5. Actually (1987)
In which Tennant discovers doubletracked vocals and harmonies, deepening the reach of these High Thatcher Era performances. I may prefer “Rent,” “It Couldn’t Happen Here,” and, above all, “Kings Cross” to the hit singles and underline-every-joke album track.
6. Nightlife (1999)
The sequel to Please, Nightlife adds fourteen years worth of arrangement wizardry: Rollo and Craig Armstrong arrange live strings around beats as well as any disco producer. Confirmed heterosexual Greil Marcus had the last word: “Here the group could be starting over from the beginning, in an ’80s nightclub, dancing to the drum machine, all possibilities of love and fear present in the way your partner looks you in the eye or over your shoulder.”
7. Fundamental (2006)
If Actually was PSB’s Thatcher album, then Fundamental takes Tony Blair’s entertainment-politics nexus to task. Only Trevor Horn could have made it live with orchestral counterpoint. Yet the smaller-scale songs like “I Made My Excuses and Left,” “Luna Park,” and “Indefinite Leave to Remain” could’ve emerged from any Pet Shop Boyzone. The highlight: “Minimal,” a manifesto.
8. Alternative (1995)
From “In the Night” through “Some Speculation,” these B-sides and EP album tracks shame the competition. The booklet alone is like reading Conversations With… Picks: “A Man Could Get Arrested,” “You Know Where You Went Wrong,” “I Get Excited (You Get Excited Too),” “Bet She’s Not Your Girlfriend,” “The Sound of the Atom Splitting,” “Decadence.”
9. Bilingual (1996)
Spoiled by ruinous sequencing, their first post-peak record shows little signs of slackening but is thin on beats. Increasingly, their electronic ballads and mid-tempo numbers would become their baubles (“A Red Letter Day,” beloved of Elton John; “To Step Aside”). And when they flirted with Please-era anonymity they displayed their mettle again: the Danny Tenaglia-produced “Before” should’ve crossed over to every pop chart in the world. Listeners worried about their Britpop affinities are directed to “The Truck Driver and His Mate.” I bought the “Before” single for this B-side.
10. Electric (2013)
And just like that, they returned, cumbersome, a little thicker, like any band asked to come up with songs that honor their history.