The Pet Shop Boys are made up of British duo Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe with the pair dominating the charts with their brand of stylish synth pop and dance music throughout the 80’s and into the 90’s.
“Actually” was their 2nd album and is the project that really catapulted them into the consciousness of anyone listening to music during that period with this album alone spawning four hit singles, many of which continue to played on radio in the UK today.
As my interest in synth pop grows the influence that the Pet Shop Boys have had either directly or indirectly is apparent as I continue to hear bits of their work bubbling over into the more contemporary sounds of the modern music scene.
This is clever, stylish and polished pop music. This has something to say, catchy hooks, familiar lyrics and most importantly – damn good songs.
The 1980’s is often dismissed by music connoisseurs yet groups like The Human League, Tears For Fears and the Pet Shop Boys offered a balance between what would be considered “serious” music and throwaway pop. That is not to say I find anything about this album ‘throwaway’ because quite honestly I think this is a superb collection of songs.
The set begins with “One More Chance” which is a bit of a 80’s dance stomper with the distinctive vocal of Tennant. There is a lot going on with the production and the hand clapping on the production can be a little distracting but the chorus is the really strong point of the song as there is something in the vocal that sounds strained and desperate which connects to the lyric he is singing so well.
The song gets better as it goes on with a great keyboard solo later on in the track continuing to change up the tone and atmosphere that the song creates.
One of the big hit singles on the album is a duet with legendary British singer Dusty Springfield. “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” gave her career a resurgence and the Pet Shop Boys a number two hit in the UK and the US.
I adore this song and always have. It’s a singalong bonanza with the two different vocal styles of Tennant and Springfield working so well together when initially I would have been unsure how the robotic nature of his voice would merge with the soulful sounds of Springfield.
Every portion of this song is gorgeous and every key change is expertly times and produced. A gargantuan slice of pop perfection.
“Shopping” is song about the government selling off the British industries in favour of privatization. This song resonates perfectly here in 2018 and whilst there is a simplistic nature to how this song is presented the point it makes is still relevant to then and now.
Content aside it is another superbly presented track which is produced to give us a gorgeous finish. One of the best tracks on the album.
The transition between “Shopping” and the 4th track and “Rent” is almost seamless. This is yet another song one this album I love. The story is about someone in a relationship who is effectively there because the other person is keeping them financially and paying his or her rent.
Tennant sounds alluring on this track and there is an innocence in the way he sings the chorus I find compelling. The interpretation of the songs lyrics can be taken in different ways (is this about a woman who has a rich husband who is paying for everything or a more murky look at rent boys and prostitution. Either way this doesn’t detract that is is a phenomenal track.
“Hit Music” closes the first half of the album and whilst not a terrible track it doesn’t deliver in the same was the previous 4 tracks had and kind of gets lost on this album when most groups in the 80’s would have seen this song as one of their best.
It follows the same production and melodic progression as many of the other tracks but it perhaps a little to clunky instrumentally.
“It Couldn’t Happen Here” is my least liked track on “Actually”. Co- Written by composer Ennio Morricone the song has a an epic movie score classical feel with big orchestral strings. But it sounds just a little out of place to me and ultimately I find it boring and am posing like Neil Tennant on the front cover of the album.
Normal service is resumed with the 7th track “It’s A Sin”. This was another big hit for the duo and reached number one on the UK Charts.
The song sees Tennant talk about his Catholic upbringing and how at odds he was with the teachings that were given to him. It’s a critique of religion and how everything good in life is seen as a sin.
This song translates into so many different life situations including sexuality and “It’s A Sing” along with Bronski Beat “Smalltown Boy” have become anthems in the Gay community for their bold and defiant stance on how society views their lifestyle.
Again though ultimately this is just a great song. The Pet Shop Boys are at the height of their hit making powers here. A giant of a track.
On “I Want To Wake Up” Tennant sings about love and how it can be perceived as a dream or a nightmare depending on your perspective. I love the tone on this song as there is such a dull and sad atmosphere that his voice just brings out in a track. That may sound a bit depressing but how a voice with some music can create such a tone is magical to me.
But the magical moment on this album happens on the 9th track “Heart”. This is my favourite song on the album and my favourite song by the Pet Shop Boys.
Something about this song clearly infiltrates my brain as every time I hear it I feel like I am hearing it for the first time. It’s a love song but again that almost robotic voice from Tennant sounds distant and lonely. It adds something to the songs lyrics because the content is so direct and to the point.
The mixing on this track is just stunning and I adore it from start to finish.
The final track on this excellent album is “Kings Cross”. The lyrics on this track have been interpreted as something to do with the AIDS epidemic of the 80’s but Neil Tennant has stated that is more a look at unemployment and Thatcherism of the time.
The uncertainly of knowing where your next pay check is going to come from is obviously a concern but I believe this song is about an uncertainty in life and how day to day things can change for the worse.
At over 5 minutes the song is a little draining because it isn’t exactly a happy song to end the album with but another example of the Pet Shop Boys making socially conscious and well produced music.
“Actually” is a phenomenal album. There a couple of tracks that perhaps interrupt the flow but even those songs are not what I would call terrible. It’s pop music that has something to say and a different way to look at things. This is how I like my pop music because it isn’t cynically trying to just ear-worm it’s way to your brainwaves but it’s straight up direct catchy well produced pop music.
The Pet Shop Boys have developed over their career as true masters of synth pop. Sounding like no other artists they have created a sounds that is instantly recognizeable and this album is a wonderful listen.