It was a weird time to be a Pet Shop Boys fan, the late aughts. The Trevor Horn-produced Fundamental had produced some great songs and a newfound sense of political activism from Chris and Neil, but there was a sense that fun was going to be in short supply. There were glimmers of hope in the Boys’ side projects, namely their Sam Taylor-Wood collaboration “I’m in Love (With a German Film Star),” the Richard X-produced Elton John duet on Fundamental’s limited edition second disc, and their initial collaboration with the fine folk at Xenomania on the Girls Aloud track “The loving kind.”
If you haven’t heard that track in particular, take a moment and do so. It has the sense of perfect pop destiny- a remarkable Neil/Chris song, great female vocal performance, and exceptional production brought in by a multitude of new ears. Think “I’m Not Scared,” but with what those geniuses over at Popjustice called ‘crying at the discotheque, tears in the toilet’ majesty. It’s glorious, and from it comes Yes, the latest achievement in expanding the realm of pop music by Tennant and Lowe. If Fundamental reflected the state of the world using Trevor Horn’s waning grandeur to embody that malaise and organized fear of the last set of Bush years, then Xenomania becomes the eurodisco Barack Obama, dealing with serious and sensitive issues but with a sense of something new and filled with hope.
'Yes' Starts With Love.. etc.
The first single, “Love etc,” was a sort of odd duck, sounding like it could have been written for any American pop/R&B artist. But there’s that remarkable subversion that comes from having Neil be the voice of those sentiments, and the masterful pre-chorus “Oh” he deadpans was the key to unlock a rather pleasant trifle, indeed. Unlocking is the right word to use, as “All over the world” uses a replayed Tchaikovsky loop to build a new kind of self-aware pop song, working on multiple levels. “Sincere and subjective, superficial and true, easy and predictable, exciting and new.” It’s the graduate school equivalent of the cosmic intimacy of Kim Carnes’ still-untouched 1985 masterpiece “Oliver (Voice on the Radio)” (or hell, even New Kids on the Black’s “Tonight” or Donna Summer’s “On the Radio”), where the means of conveyance adds an overwhelmingness to its human frailties; the personal becomes cultural. The album’s closer, “Legacy,” does a similar thing, but from the exterior looking inward, exploring the physics of the passage of time through the song itself.
Say 'Yes' to "Beautiful People"
“Beautiful people” has a 60s-pop feel, taking one side of the ‘troubled economic times’ coin (“Building a wall” is the other), making luxury something to be striven for, not wallowed in. “Building a wall” finds the vaguely romantic side of paranoid isolation, allowing the tension of the dichotomy between self-interest and reactionary fear to drive a pleasant pop ditty. The two say quite a bit about the times in which we live, but that they do so without the monolithic Big Brother sound of the Trevor Horn method allows even these troubled songs to grow and thrive. Similarly, when “Pandemonium” uses the background sketch of a riot as its central ‘meet cute,’ it calls back to “I’m Not Scared.” But “Pandemonium” is no “I’m not scared.” If anything, it’s the “I wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing” for this record, a song about how love short-circuits your common sense and ability to perceive the world in a rational way.
Love Songs that Sweep You Away
“Did you see me coming” is as beautiful and expressive as 1990’s “It must be obvious.” It’s the kind of love song that sweeps you away. Similarly effective is “Vulnerable,” an almost plaintive number that shouldn’t work- it’s a bit ‘heart on the sleeve-y’ to feel like a Tennant/Lowe composition, but it does work, and it does allow us an almost shockingly intimate look behind the curtain.
“More than a dream” meanders a little, but pulls it together magically at the chorus, and “King of Rome” is a pleasant enough ballad. But the emotional center of Yes is the soulshattering “The way it used to be,” which is as relentless and melancholy as anything they’ve done since “Dreaming of the Queen” sixteen years ago. As adroit with words as the Boys are, they could even be talking about their own musical pasts, but everything about the song is empathetically personal, and it haunts the listener. Popjustice’s ‘crying in the discotheque, tears in the toilet’ description is spot-on, and “The way things used to be” hits hard.