Pet Shop Boys: Nightlife

June 25, 2011

Roll: 3-10-1
Pet Shop Boys, Nightlife.

In 1996 Pet Shop Boys released Bilingual which would end up being not only my favourite PSB album but one of my top-five favourite albums of all time. So when Nightlife came out a few years later, it was the first PSB disc to initially disappoint me upon release since Behaviour (1990). I don’t remember exactly what my problems with the classic Behaviour could have been, but I remember feeling that, at first blush, Nightlife felt a bit listless and that Neil Tennant was becoming an intolerably heartbroken old curmudgeon. Of course, this was before they released the truly dismal acoustic-rock tinged, Release (2002).

Hindsight and relativism can paint an album in a different light. Lately I’ve come to the opinion that, far from being a disappointment, Nightlife is actually one of their strongest albums, packed with hooks, infectious beats and their trademark wry couplets.

Prior to the release of Nightlife I picked up the two CD singles for “I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Anymore.” In spite of a propulsive beat, the monotone chorus might have been what gave me the impression the whole album was listless. Not that I minded at the time, the lyrics perfectly mirrored events that were occurring in my life. I had an ambiguously ex-girlfriend who was living in Japan and sleeping with another fellow. I believe his name was Ian. Or Ray. I might be confusing him with Tim Robbin’s character in High Fidelity. Apparently he had a big nose “like Tom Cruise.” Anyway, I played the song and its various remixes non-stop like a mantra for weeks of awkward, long-distance phone calls. After I sent her a mix CD with the song on it, she stopped taking my calls.

Did you get what you want
Do you know what it is
Do you care
Is he better than me
Was it your place or his
Who was there
Did you think it was wrong
Do you find that it’s worse than it was
Has it gone on too long
Do you mind that it hurts me because
You’re breaking my heart
I don’t know what you want but I can’t give it anymore

Naturally, despite trying to convince myself otherwise, I kept on trying to give her what she wanted—to this day I’m still not sure what that was. And once he began cheating on her and she returned home humiliated and in distress, we shacked up again. We moved into an empty beach house which we never furnished because neither of us thought it was going to work out. It didn’t.

But before things fell apart another song on the album, “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk”, became the most played song in my collection. It was quite true. I don’t think in the entire relationship did she utter the words without at least a half-litre of merlot in her belly. I think I also put that particular song on a mix CD for her. That might have been when she moved out.

I’m not sure where she went but I moved into an old farmhouse planning to start over for good. She had other ideas and began appearing on my doorstep with a bottle of wine and no intention of leaving. Needless to say, I began sleeping with a co-worker of mine as payback for Ian or Ray or whatever Tom Cruise’s name was. In the end, that played out about as well as you might imagine. The ambiguous ex wasn’t hurt nearly as much as the innocent co-worker who was, really, a very nice person who deserved better.

The line from the album I most associate with this period is “I’ll do what you want, then can I do it to you? You’re a vampire, I’m a vampire too” (track 6, “Vampires”). It embodies the tit-for-tat nature of my relationship with the ambiguous ex. Though, increasingly, everyone else I knew at the time as well.

My time in that old grey farmhouse was interesting period. Looking back, I can see I had gone a little insane. In between leaving the beach house and ensnaring the co-worker, I’d actually fallen in love with a friend’s cousin. Or I thought I had. I actually remember bopping around the house singing the refrain “I think I’m in love” (track 7, “Radiophonic”). The idea of me “bopping” around anywhere is proof of my fragile emotional state.

Regardless, I was heartbroken because the cousin had made it clear they had no intention of entering the open mine field of my love-life. Or so I believed. An oppinion on the matter was never actually voiced. But in my erratic and emotionally paranoid state, I posted a letter to my friend that, when shared with the cousin, turned my irrational doubts into self-fulfilling prophesy.

Again, in that old grey farmhouse, the album took on personal meaning. By now Nightlife had been out for quite a while and I’d begun to pay closer attention to the lesser tracks. “Happiness Is An Option” was now, quite literally, the soundtrack to my life.

Looking from a window
At the edge of a house
At the edge of a town
It’s grey like the day
When I lost it

Needed somewhere to clear my head
Find some strength a warmer bed
Maximum love in a minimal world
I’d never achieved it

It is not easy
Happiness is an option

Though I’d made a mess of things between myself several people, I was remarkably optimistic that blue skies were just over the horizon.

Which meant shortly thereafter I suffered a minor nervous-breakdown and spent a year collecting Employment Insurance and living in condominium with the no longer so ambiguous, no-longer ex. But that is another chapter scored by the Pet Shop Boys’ next album, Release.

I can see now why Nightlife had been tainted in my mind. It came out during what was, simply, not a stellar period of my life. In a sense I was living a “night” life. Not nights full of discoballs and cocktails, but days tinged with the darkness of a cloudy evening. For years afterwards, everything I’d listened to in that 24-month period sounded a little tarnished. Now I can finally, to quote George Michael, listen without prejudice.

“New York City Boy” is a fabulous, glitterous final instalment in what I consider their unofficial Jaques Morali homage trilogy (starting with ‘”Go West” and continuing with “Saturday Night Forever”). Several tracks from their musical Closer to Heaven get a better treatment here than on the cast recording—the duet with Kylie Minogue, “In Denial”, is especially touching. The production weathers remarkably well for a twelve year-old dance album. It might actually benefit from the passage of time since I seem to remember thinking it sounded a touch dated upon release. Being six months behind the club trends of 1999 is an irrelevant criticism now. Though, overall, not as honest and direct as Bilingual, there is an honesty, directness and general quality of songwriting here that their subsequent albums (though oddly not the b-sides) have failed to achieve.


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