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The WILT Archive

What I'm Listening tO

        Since I like to write, quite a few people have suggested I write a blog. But I’m not especially interested in writing about myself. I did enough of that in my book (A Cure For Gravity) and even that is as much about music as it is about me.

        Writing about music is difficult, but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.

October 2016: Your Early Stuff

The world of popular music can be cruel. Being heavily biased towards youth and novelty, it can allow very young artists to feel, for a couple of years, that they can do nothing wrong; only to find, years later, that they can do nothing right. (And, quite possibly, to realize that neither situation correlates all that closely with the quality of their work).

Nevertheless quite a few people hang in there and, against the odds, build something like a lifelong career – even if they can't expect even their most genuine fans to get passionately involved with every one of their twenty or thirty albums. There were certain artists, years ago, whose every new album I would buy as a matter of course: David Bowie, Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Talking Heads. But mostly they're no longer around, and otherwise – well, it seems that Giants no longer walk the Earth. And of the bona fide icons still standing, most are artists I either never much cared for, or are well past their prime.

There are mere mortals, though, who've stuck to their guns long enough to earn respect. I just have to make an effort, once in a while, to catch up with them. I may be a genuine fan, but I'm only human.

I'm thinking of things like this:

GARBAGE:  Strange Little Birds

This is a very good new album by a very good band who've had the same lineup since 1993. Ostensibly a Hard Rock guitar band, they're really too imaginative to be Hard Rock, and too clever in their atmospheric use of electronics to be a guitar band. Having a run-of-the-mill screamer as a front-person would drag them down, but instead they have Shirley Manson, who lifts them higher. If I have a criticism, it's similar to the one I have of Nirvana and the Foo Fighters: namely, that the strategy of alternating spooky quiet bits (with Manson sounding both sexy and sinister) with flat-out loud bits (with, well, everything) can become formulaic. At least it's a good formula, though.

Or this:

SIDESTEPPER:  Supernatural Love

I've written before about Richard Blair aka Sidestepper, whose glorious Anglo-Colombian electronic-latin-Caribbean experiment was, I thought, over and done with – until, in a record shop in Prague (on my birthday!) I discovered this brand new album. It turns out to be something like Sidestepper Unplugged, without the programmed beats, instead revolving around live percussion, vocals, and a lovely, tasteful, guitarist, who has the underrated gift of being able to make simple things sound beautiful. Initially surprising, it has really grown on me, and kudos to Blair & co. for changing things up.

Above all, there's this:

THE PET SHOP BOYS: Electric  /  Super

It's funny how things become acquired tastes. It's not exactly a gradual process. You tried an olive, or a sip of Scotch, and you weren't sure. You tried again, and still weren't sure. Then, suddenly, you were in the right place at the right time, or the stars aligned in a certain way, and you got it. I became a Pet Shop Boys fan quite late. After years of not being sure, I suddenly realized that a lot of their songs were great - even classic - and I suddenly found myself charmed by Neil Tennant's voice, instead of vaguely annoyed.

PSB transcend whatever their genre is (Electronic Dance-Pop?) with touches of sophistication, and little surprises, that have kept them interesting and relevant for more than thirty years. They just keep cranking it out, but I lost touch after they made two albums which didn't exactly thrill me. I loved Release, which is widely regarded as a critical and commercial flop. I don't know why; maybe because it was uncharacteristically gentle, even sweet. In songwriting terms, I found it to be one of their best. But Fundamental struck me as being overproduced by Trevor Horn, and I had problems with Elysium, on which they'd started writing about the downsides of getting older, and people only wanting to hear your early stuff.

There was even a song called Your Early Stuff ('You've been around but you don't look too rough / And I still quite like some of your early stuff'). Quite catchy, really, but I can't listen to it without feeling uncomfortable. On the one hand, I can totally relate. Quite a few people have told me they're my biggest fan, but what they really like is My Early Stuff. In fact, they like it so much, and they're such big fans, that they've never listened to anything else.

And there's no doubt that first albums, for instance, are often romanticized or overrated. Sometimes they're the best thing the artist ever did (especially if the artist then conveniently went and died) but more often they're not; and anyway, if you can't do anything at least as good as your first album later in your career, you're not much of an artist.

And yet . . . I couldn't write a song like Your Early Stuff - or another song from the same album, Invisible, about feeling too old at a party. In the first case I wouldn't expect anyone to sympathise, and in the second, I'd think: no one my own age needs to hear this, and no one younger wants to. I would be embarrassed by those songs before I even started writing them.

Still, one or two songs, or even a bad album, weren't going to turn me against the Pet Shop Boys, who just kept on going, and doing very unexpected and cool things (like creating a score for the silent film classic Battleship Potemkin). So I've finally caught up with their last two albums. And my first impression of Electric (2013) was of solidity. People who know what they're doing, doing it really well. It's state-of-the-art Electro-Dance-Pop and we're in safe hands. It's almost like listening to Classical music. The first track reminded me, at times, of both Giorgio Moroder and Kraftwerk. Anything that's been established for decades is Classical music now. Hip-hop is Classical music.

PSB seem to be interested in actual Classical Classical music, too. Love Is A Bourgeois Construct, a clever, sad and funny song, is based on a piece by the 17th-century English composer Henry Purcell (I love the way the composer credits read 'Tennant/Lowe/Purcell'). A bigger surprise is The Last To Die, written by, of all people, Bruce Springsteen. I think of PSB as being so very English that they'd cover a song by George Formby before they'd cover one by Bruce Springsteen. Maybe that's the point, though, since their version is about as far away from Da Boss as you could possibly get.

Otherwise, Electric is a decent album, with a bright and punchy dance feel, even if it doesn't feature PSB's very best songwriting. Super, released earlier this year, is very much in the same mold, with the same producer (Stuart Price), but it's a slightly bigger, more substantial album. I want to say it's better, except that on three tracks in a row, it slides into the queasily cynical nostalgia of Elysium. On first listen, I found this a bit like watching someone who you thought had stopped drinking, getting drunk and maudlin, and wishing they'd stop. The Pop Kids is lyrically every bit as gauche as the young hipsters it gently mocks, while Twenty-Something and Groovy continue to take aim at easy targets like youth, fashion, and narcissism. Please don't go any further down this road, guys. You're the cream of the crop; don't let yourselves turn into curdled milk.

Even those songs have pretty good tunes, though, and Super gets better and better. The Dictator Decides is an odd and intriguing song, which sounds like it might have been based on something by Henry Purcell, though this time, it isn't. Sad Robot World is a gem, melancholically pretty in an almost Beatle-ish way. The rest of the album is classic Pet Shop Boys, whether in bittersweet mode (which suits them much better than just bitter) or disco-party mode. It ends strongly with Into Thin Air, a catchy yet vaguely mysterious song about two lovers wanting to get away from it all which suggests that, by some kind of black magic, they can actually disappear. I love the ending: the music gradually just falls apart, as though the Boys themselves have disappeared, and the machinery has broken down without their own magic to animate it.

Both these albums have moments of a kind of musical euphoria which is very specific to PSB. The beats can be hard, even edgy, but against that, Tennant's strangely plaintive voice and the lush, orchestral synths create a whole other dimension that is langorous and romantic. The effect is like being high on an upper and a downer at the same time. The best Electronic Dance Music can have this quality, but PSB are not EDM; they're too melodic, too musical. 

Electric and Super seem to belong together, and considered as one entity, they're an excellent Pet Shop Boys album. I'm not even going to play the game of comparing it to their Early Stuff. The fact is it's 2016 and they're still around, still prolific, and still keeping the overall quality high. In the scheme of things, it's all pretty bloody amazing.