Pet Shop Boys – Nonetheless

A fine return from the synth-pop legends...

As they celebrate their fortieth year at the ever-changing and endlessly fickle coalface of pop, ‘Nonetheless’ finds Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe as consistent as Pet Shop Boys ever have been.

This is a duo who have assiduously avoided fitting into any mould that the music world might have made for them, allowing them to have one foot in the charts while the other treads the boards of musical theatre. They have crafted a niche between the worlds of pop and art, the catwalk and the disco, the meaningful and the disposable, the serious and the irreverent. This is a duo as comfortable covering Bertolt Brecht as they are The Village People, and they are also just about the only band who can deliver an album with the title ‘Nonetheless’.

A more Pet Shop Boys title than ‘Nonetheless’ is hard to imagine; a more faithful showcase of their sound than this collection is even harder to conceive of.

‘Nonetheless’ was produced by the ever-adaptable James Ford, a studio whizz who has an unerring knack – on the evidence of his work work with Depeche Mode and Arctic Monkeys – of drawing out the essence of a band’s personality, and isolating the quality that resonates most emotionally with fans. In the case of ‘Nonetheless’, Ford has emphasised all of the things that have always made Pet Shop Boys so brilliant – their love of upbeat, optimistic hi-NRG tunes; their ability to knock out stirring torch songs; arrangements full of orchestral lushness as much as fizzing electronics; and an earnest worldliness that is nothing short of devastating. 

For this writer, there are three songs here that shine the brightest. Opening track ‘Loneliness’ is undoubtedly one. On face value, this is Pet Shop Boys at their upbeat, outlandish best, with a big chorus, parping digital horns, breathy female backing vocals and a relentless 4/4 rhythm. It’s not event remotely hidden, but – however axiomatic that might seem, given the uninterrupted euphoria of the song – this is a paean to overcoming loneliness and isolation. It is unswervingly positive, affirming , wise and encouraging. “When you gonna not say no and make the answer yes?” enquires Tennant in his trademark singing / spoken style. His suggested solution to loneliness? Dance your troubles away and let love in.

‘The Secret Of Happiness’ is another powerful moment, full of swooning strings, a sultry samba imbued with Bacharachian grandeur and a beatific, lush presentation. Charming and endearing, ‘The Secret Of Happiness’ finds Tennant at his most romantic and tender, and nods gently in the direction of their 1991 collaboration with Electronic, ‘The Patience Of A Saint’. While it might feel slightly out of place compared to upbeat bangers like ‘Loneliness’, in the idiosyncratic PSB soundworld, pretty much everything sounds out of place, and that’s always been part of their charm. 

Fittingly, the most important moment here feels directly connected to ‘West End Girls’, the 1984 foundation hit that Pet Shop Boys’ success was built on. I don’t use the word ‘important’ lightly. ‘New London Boy’ is almost like the inverse of ‘West End Girls’. It represents a different London. A more realistic London. This is not the sleek, polished, neon-lit London of ‘West End Girls’. It is instead a dangerous, threatening environment for a young gay, man arriving in London and trying to find who they are and their place in the world. These are the words and realties that could not be sung about forty years ago, but which now can be. ‘New London Boy’ includes a rap, a firm throw back to the Tennant of forty years ago, but it is a hardened, more honest Tennant delivering the verses, while the wistful phrasing elsewhere in the song gestures toward another career highlight, the reflective ‘Being Boring’.

There any many other fine moments here; these are merely what moved this writer the most. Taken as a whole, this is an utterly brilliant, dependably polished listen, and one that is unquestionably up there with the best moments in this duo’s storied career. 

8/10

Words: Mat Smith

Inset Photo: Alasdair McLellan

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