I absolutely adore the Pet Shop Boys and have long felt that pop culture has not given this band their due. The public consciousness has somehow frozen somewhere around the late 1980s as far as the band is concerned, missing the fact that the duo of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have continued creating music on into the new millennium, blazing a trail as innovators in electronic dance music. They've even expanded their range to do stage plays and a modern score for Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, a version of which I'd love to see on DVD. And yet, when I told a friend that I had gotten their new concert disc, Pet Shop Boys: Cubism in Concert, he asked, "Really? Are they still around?"
Yes, still around and very much at the height of their powers. Last year's Fundamental record was their best since 1994's Very, which I'd consider the creative zenith for Pet Shop Boys. Cubism in Concert was shot last November in Mexico City as part of the tour to promote Fundamental, and though there is a good amount of attention paid to that album, the band has over twenty years of material to draw from for their set. Really, the "Cubism" title seems an appropriate description of this kind of musical construct: a band's career represented in one sitting, all the facets of two decades of music represented in under two hours, viewing all angles at once and making each song equal on the timeline. I may just be pulling that out of my butt, but the Pet Shop is the workplace of rather smart Boys, and I wouldn't put it past them.
The Cubism idea also extends to the stage set, where the backdrop is a stack of several squares, all of which can work as individual boxes or as one solid box (and which get moved by men on the stage). Images can be projected on them, but Tennant and his dancers can also go behind them and become figures in this artistic tenement, performing from within the structure. As the concert opens, the dancers and back-up singers stroll out on stage dressed as Tennant and Lowe, making the duo's emergence in the same outfits part of one blur of detail, as if Picasso were painting them in motion. There may be only two, but with their doppelgangers, we can see them from every side at once.
The rest of the stage show is equally impressive, though midway the dancers will change costumes to fit different themes that emerge in the set. There is no band per se, just Tennant on the microphone and Lowe on keyboards, playing the bigger hooks live but also working with preprogrammed musical tracks. It's as much Broadway spectacle as it is rock concert, and so the band has arranged the songs as much by theme and style as by sound. The spelling chorus of "Minimal" provides a natural segue into the spelling chorus of "Shopping," and the consumerism of "Shopping" can only be followed by the love-in-the-bank ballad "Rent." Likewise, though love is killed in "Dreaming of the Queen," it is instantly revived by "Heart," and the calculation and criminal scheming of "Opportunities" gives way to the corporate chastisement of "Integral." There are also more music-based groupings, like the Latin sounds linking "Se a Vide E" and "Domino Dancing" or putting their Elvis and U2 covers back-to-back.
It's an intelligent, thoughtful approach to putting a setlist together, and it's great that it gives Pet Shop Boys the freedom to give us as many strong album cuts as they give us singles. Tennant is an excellent showman, carrying the concert squarely on his shoulders. His voice sounds just as good as it did back in the day, but maybe more mature now, more assured and slightly deeper. He still goes with the nearly flat, unemotional delivery that somehow manages to wring power and emotion out of his literary pop lyrics anyway. It's been the most obvious calling card of the Pet Shop Boys sound, and they are so good at capturing the iciness of heartbreak, I can't think of any band that has yet tried to borrow the technique. It would be like trying to reinvigorate Cubist painting: will you ever be able to do it better than Picasso? Probably not.
The full song list:
The gears shift into high camp in the final clutch of songs, with spangly military uniforms donned for "The Sodom and Gomorrah Show" and then glittery top hats, with the dancers going back to their costumes that match the main duo. "So Hard" is a slowed down remix version, sung entirely by the back-up singers (including regular PSB gal Sylvia Mason-James), and "It's a Sin" and "Go West" are big performances, with all the stops pulled out for a massive finish.
There are also extras on the DVD itself, and those I did receive. In addition to a photo gallery from the production, there is also a nine-minute, twenty-second documentary looking at the band's trip south of the border, featuring interviews with fans and some explanation of how the concert was put together. Additionally, there is a feature-length audio commentary with Tennant, Lowe, and director David Barnard, who previously shot concerts by Bjork and Gorillaz. It's a fun commentary, mainly dominated by Tennant and Lowe, who have fun making light of what unlikely pop stars they are. It's a little spotty, because it's a musical performance, not a story, so there are times when I imagine there just isn't anything to say. Barnard usually chimes in with technical info.