Pet Shop Boys - Please
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
The Pet Shop Boys made better albums than Please, but no other captures them at their un-ironic best. Unadorned, thin, Please sounds like many other dance albums released in the mid eighties, its creators’ anonymity underpinning subtexts that would become more obvious as the Boys’ confidence grew on subsequent albums.
The hits you know. “West End Girls,” the misunderstood “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)”—all here, still fresh despite almost 20 years of radio play. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, contemptuous of the rock canon, recorded an unofficial concept album—that most rockist of statements—celebrating the wages of sin, with a protagonist who’s young and full of cum. He’s looking for kicks (“Two Divided By Zero”), makes lots of money (“Opportunities”), picks someone up at a club (“I Want A Lover”), it feels great (“Tonight is Forever”) but he still lusts after good-looking young offenders who don’t return the favor (“Later Tonight”) and, finally, they add up the costs and make do (“Why Don’t We Live Together”).
I suspect that the Boys’ diminished American profile after 1988’s Introspective was directly proportional to Yank tolerance for Tennant’s persona, exemplified by that infamous nonsinger’s voice: he talks like what most Americans expect Englishmen to sound (cut to Kevin Kline’s dim bankrobber in A Fish Called Wanda, confronting John Cleese: “You English are so superior!”). On Please he’s tentative and rather gauche, like the beats. It’s the old story: the young man hitting the town with last night’s paycheck in his wallet. Everyone looks beautiful, and he gratifies his writer instincts by making wry observations about East End boys and West End girls over Bombay and tonics. He craves distance because it’s not only the English thing to do, it’s the stance which makes him most attractive to those beautiful strangers he’s eyeing.
That’s why it gets tiresome reading the usual taglines about the Pet Shop Boys: there’s nothing ironic about the songs on Please. Tennant and Lowe really do want to make lots of money. Satire my ass. Satire requires a moralizing streak and the distance Tennant aspires to but never quite reaches. The fat, sleazy electro bassline of “West End Girls” tells us everything we need to know about what kind of pleasure Tennant’s getting (Tennant sounds fat and sleazy only on the fabulous non-LP B-side “In the Night”). The frosty rush of “Two Divided By Zero,” my favorite underrated PSB song, demonstrates why Tennant doesn’t get all Catholic on us: he’s having fun. A sampled Speak-and-Spell, in a sad chirrupy voice (rather like Tennant’s), repeats divided by, divided by, the keyboards mimicking the rush of traffic as it affects an overstimulated brain (or libido) —an effect “I Want A Lover” will note in the lyric, “Driving through the city is so exciting!” A love letter to the glimmering metropolis of Kraftwerk’s “Neon Lights,” Please finds no pleasure in suburbia.
The insistent use of the second-person pronoun was a subtle acknowledgment that Tennant’s desires were, to be generous, ambivalent. Being less demonstrably homosexual than Jimmy Sommerville has its advantages: the anodyne quality of much of Please’s songs veils unspoken hurts. Tennant and Lowe’s songs fetishized the private longings contained therein so that their subtexts were a code for anyone who wanted to peer beneath the glitz. This is especially true in its ballads. “Later Tonight” makes good use of the rue Tennant will show to even better effect on later songs like “Young Offender.” On “Love Comes Quickly” Tennant double-tracks himself into submission, the rhythm as unrelenting as a beating heart on a dance floor—and we all know how great and awful a crush is when the beloved’s dancing a few inches away, oblivious.
But it’s the album closer “Why Don’t We Live Together” that sums up Please better than the singles. Probably the Boys’ best should-have-been-a-hit, it examines a theme rarely explored in pop music outside of Rumours: compromise, accommodation, settling. Tennant has never been more accessible than when he admits, “You may not always love me / I may not care”; the key word is “may,” as devastating a qualifier as the caesura in “I love you, you pay my rent” on a later and even greater hit song. He sounds giddy, turned on by his own honesty. As Lowe goes bonkers on the arrangement, piling up bass stutters and burps, synth-harmonicas solos, thick coats of drums, and Tennant bursting into falsetto—like one of the Bobby O 12-inches the Boys adored—we feel as if a familiar situation had been reinvented, which is the best praise an album as moving and deeply subversive as Please deserves.