Published Feb 01, 2000In a single, surprisingly blunt statement, Neil Tennant reveals the essence of the Pet Shop Boys: "All of our music is about contrast." He is usually much more eloquent, but that one statement is the best way of describing Tennant's past 15 years of work with partner Chris Lowe. They juxtapose underground dance with an understated sense of lyrical wit and insight. Their songs are consistently political - having probed the social conditions of religion ("It's A Sin"), AIDS ("Being Boring") and the Cold War ("West End Girls") - yet are playful enough to be popular.
Now their latest album, Nightlife , is about survival - living through the decadence of clubbing, but also the twilight hours after, when we confront our fears in the darkness of the soul. " Nightlife is about what goes on at night - why people get wrecked and have fun," Tennant explains. "How some people are happier at night, while others feel very lonely. A song like 'Vampires' is about people going out to clubs and abusing people, especially when drugs are more important than anything else. They get de-humanised and they exploit each other. 'Radiophonic' is similarly about going to bed drunk because you've been clubbing all night and wondering what's been happening around you."
Nightlife 's mood is not all dark and sombre, though. It often flowers out with the sweet sentimentality and orchestral finery that amuses their fans, and makes their detractors nauseous. The instrumentation of the album similarly shifts from introspective, Portishead-ish beats to happy-house vibes that show the influence of DJs like Junior Vasquez and David Morales (who helps out on the anthemic "New York City Boy"). And for every "Vampire," there's a cynical, yet cheery, love song like "You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk." The heavily irony-laden tone is nothing new for the Pet Shop Boys, whom some have labelled "the first postmodern pop group."
"I think if you were a postmodern pop group, you would have to regard pop music as a sort of dead language that you were reconstructing," Tennant muses, "but I don't think we do that. [Producer] Trevor Horn once defined pop music for me as 'a song performed to a contemporary dance beat.' That's what the Pet Shop Boys do. We see pop music as a language that's always living - full of life."