Call the Pet Shop Boys cockeyed pessimists. Since the beginning, their records have been beat-filled odes to low self-esteem, catchy invitations to depression. But then, everything about the duo’s sound flirts with contradiction: Machines dominate their synth-pop music but the results are lush. Sarcasm drips from the vocals of Neil Tennant but underneath he glows with sincerity. Even when the Pet Shop Boys act utterly aloof, they’re impassioned about it.
What’s different about this British act’s latest work, Behavior, is an easier way with the beats and greater vulnerability in the lyrics. Add to that their most consistently beautiful melodies to date and you’ve got a new melding of the dance floor and the shrink’s office.
You’ll find nothing as conniving as their old anthem of the Reagan-Thatcher era, ”Opportunities” (with the refrain ”You’ve got the looks/I’ve got the brains/Let’s make lots of money”), or as resigned to exploitive relationships as 1987’s ”Rent” (”I love you/You pay my rent”). There is one openly sarcastic number, ”How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously?” which makes such clue-laden fun of a pompous rock star it could become the most guessed-about pop song since Carly Simon’s ”You’re So Vain.” (Most likely target: George Michael or Madonna.) But the rest represents the group’s most earnest expressions of romantic distress, emphasized by the sweeping melodies.
Of course, these ”boys” have hardly lost their sense of camp. In , ”Nervously” (which makes the duo’s gay sensibility explicit in their first open, same-sex love song), the narrator describes his affection as ”approval,” as if he were writing a critique. Musical arrangements, too, are approached with a raised eyebrow. The clumsy introduction of the guitar in ”How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously?” makes the lyrics seem even more deadpan; the overelegant strings in ”Being Boring” parody their own grandiloquence. This latter track is the album’s high point and its key. Connecting F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, and her wild life in the ’20s with the carefree sex-and-drug credo of the club scene in the ’70s, it culminates in a verse about the age of AIDS without making the connection in any way judgmental. It’s funny and mournful, and stands as a defiant ode to excess. In the end, it may be these ambiguities that make the Pet Shop Boys great. They’re able to find in despair the seeds of inspiration. A+