Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Pet Shop Boys

  • Please [EMI America, 1986] A-
  • Disco [EMI-Manhattan, 1986] B
  • Actually [EMI-Manhattan, 1987] A-
  • Introspective [EMI-Manhattan, 1988] A-
  • Behavior [EMI America, 1990] **
  • Discography: The Complete Singles Collection [EMI America, 1991] A
  • Very [EMI, 1993] A
  • Disco 2 [EMI, 1994] Dud
  • Alternative [EMI, 1995] **
  • Bilingual [Atlantic, 1996] A-
  • Nightlife [Parlophone/Sire, 1999] A-
  • Release [Sanctuary, 2002] B+
  • Fundamental [Rhino, 2006] **
  • Yes [Astralwerks, 2009] ***
  • Elysium [Astralwerks, 2012] A-
  • Electric [X2, 2013] **
  • Super [Kobalt, 2016] **
  • Hotspot [Kobalt, 2020] ***

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Please [EMI America, 1986]
The music's blandness is part of the quite well-executed concept: articulating the ambivalent romanticism, immodest hopes, and not-so-quiet desperation behind the suburban facade of the people who create Smash Hits pop, and maybe consume it, too. I hum most of the catchily namby-pamby tunes and ponder most of the yearningly cynical lyrics, but the moments I really love are provided by sound effects--sirens and breaking glass so skillfully integrated into the synthesized textures that at first I didn't notice they were there. A-

Disco [EMI-Manhattan, 1986]
Serious about not being taken seriously, they set Shep Pettibone (or is that Pet Sheppibone?) to remixing their greatest hit, then ask Pet/Shep, Arthur Baker, and the Latin Rascals to remix three other fairly nifty songs from the only album they've ever released. Just for variety, the lead cuts are the B sides from their great hit and their lesser hit, and I confess I'm glad to own both, brand names and all. Also, "West End Girls" does hold up quite nicely for 9:03. Still . . . B

Actually [EMI-Manhattan, 1987]
Calling Neil Tennant a bored wimp is like accusing Jackson Pollock of making a mess. Since the bored wimp is his subject and his medium, whether he actually is one matters only insofar as the music sounds bored and/or wimpy--and only insofar as that's without its rewards and revelations. From Dusty Springfield to hit Fairlight to heart beats and from insider shopping to kept icon to Bowiesque futurism, this is actual pop music with something actual to say--pure commodity, and proud of it. A-

Introspective [EMI-Manhattan, 1988]
What a cerebral band--if they keep on at this rate, they'll inspire more deep thinking than David Bowie and Henry Cow combined. The textures on their bubble-salsa statement are so cheesy that it takes forever to penetrate to its intellectual essence, which lends the cheese its savor. And as a pop aesthete I'm offended by the pace--average cut length on this six-song disco mix is a languorous 8:20. Guess I'm just a sucker for lyrics that give Ché Guevara his due. A-

Behavior [EMI America, 1990]
see the movie ("Being Boring," "October Symphony") **

Discography: The Complete Singles Collection [EMI America, 1991]
More even than "hit" or "product," these boys know "concept," so there's no point complaining that "the complete singles collection" includes more than half the titles on their disco album (Introspective--Disco was another concept). Truth in promotion is their byword--the complete singles is what you're gonna get even if they're also the greatest album tracks. And after an early stiff, they establish a canon right down to the previously unreleaseds. Cerebral, sensitive, sensationalistic, shallow, this is the sound of pleasure at a distance. And also, oh yeah, pain. A

Very [EMI, 1993]
Fey and ironic naturellement, but I wasn't ready for baroque--techno synths, massed brass, Village People chorus boys. And I also wasn't ready for sincere. For all his "I've been a teenager since before you were born," Neil Tennant finally seems, well, ready to love--finally seems to comprehend that needing another human being is more than an experiment you perform on your feelings, a way to insure that you'll not only be ravished but ravished exquisitely. Convinced cornballs may still find his emotions attenuated, but I say the production values suit the tumult in his heart and the melodies the sweetness in his soul. And I dare anybody who still thinks he's just talking to notate his high notes. A

Disco 2 [EMI, 1994] Dud

Alternative [EMI, 1995]
two discs of marginalia proving what?--that Very could have been more amazing yet? ("What Keeps Mankind Alive?" "Shameless," "Too Many People") **

Bilingual [Atlantic, 1996]
Neil Tennant shores up his positivity with a shrug and a question mark. Does love seem arbitrary, ineffable? Well, "That's the Way Life Is"--"It Always Comes as a Surprise." Fortunately he hasn't given up disco, or satire either. Thus he leaves us wondering whether the hustling lip-syncher of "Electricity" has the same name as the computer-toting EEC hotshot of "Bilingual"--Neil. A-

Nightlife [Parlophone/Sire, 1999]
Having spent the decade risking l-o-v-e, Neil Tennant settles down with "A borderline fool/Naive and cruel," cushions the pain with melody, adds up the damages, and accounts himself ready for more. "I only worry for your sake," the altruist-as-ironist insists as he wonders where "Boy Strange" is with who. Not to worry, he will survive--for as long as he at least hears B.S.'s "footsteps in the dark." "Only love can break your heart," he observes, and that we've heard that one before doesn't make it any less poignant--maybe more. A-

Release [Sanctuary, 2002]
Eventually, the tunes fall into place. What never materialize in sufficient number are the billowing climaxes and cutting remarks that mark their best albums, meaning most of them. Continuing their tragically heartening journey into normality, they provide several highly serviceable straight love songs, and I hope someone explains to me whether "Birthday Boy" is really Jesus or somebody just thinks so. And then there's the Eminem track. The Eminem track is . . . wondrous, transcendent, a blow against rap homophobia, a great work of art. If buying this album is the only way you can hear it, don't hesitate. Form a pool if you have to. B+

Fundamental [Rhino, 2006]
Slowly receding into alienated resignation ("The Sodom and Gomorrah Show," "Casanova in Hell"). **

Yes [Astralwerks, 2009]
They want more than only memories--a human touch to make them real ("Building a Wall," "Vulnerable"). ***

Elysium [Astralwerks, 2012]
The music may well seem too restrained, presumably because Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe figured that on an album where 11 songs find 11 different ways to mock, rue, ponder, and accept their professional mortality, the entitled glee of their full-on disco productions is off the table. Even the explicit "Your Early Stuff" and the valedictory "Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin" keep a lid on it, the better to fit in with the ones that go "Look at me, the absentee," "Say it's not so/That you'd rather lose me," "Our love is dead/But the dead don't go away," and everything else except the pounding "A Face Like That," which also boasts the only lyric that doesn't follow the program. Whether metaphysical ("Everything means something") or bitchy ("There's got to be a future/Or the world will end today"), they're at peace with the fate of their fame and their retirement accounts. And the understated beats suit their elysian equanimity. A-

Electric [X2, 2013]
Cyborgs have feelings too, and us human beings are here to tell you about it ("Love Is a Bourgeois Construct," "Vocal") **

Super [Kobalt, 2016]
With their minimalist chops holding up nicely, someday they'll do a satirical album with the punch of their disco-life numbers--I try to tell myself that ("The Pop Kids," "Twenty-Something," "Burn") **

Hotspot [Kobalt, 2020]
"Happy people/Living in a sad world," they celebrate their good fortune by setting it to music both stirring and contained--music that never conceals its limitations ("I Don't Wanna," "Wedding in Berlin," "Will-o-the-Wisp") ***