Neil Tennant often refers to Pet Shop Boys as having had an “imperial phase,” some time in the mid-1980s, when everything they released turned to gold. What’s perhaps apparent now is that there wasn’t a single “imperial phase,” as much as a gentle decline into mid-1990s obscurity as they reached what might have been the twilight of their career. Very should be considered imperial – it’s their only number one album to date, and delivered one of their biggest hit singles in the shape of Go West.
It seems an entirely appropriate moment to write this review too, with their latest album Electric having the incredible claim of being their most successful for two decades. Very was their 1993 comeback, released an astonishing twenty years ago this week. Let’s take a listen…
The first track is the totally brilliant Can You Forgive Her? which turns out to be about a gay man coming of age, although honestly I think you can enjoy the song on any number of levels without knowing this. It’s essential, imperial Pet Shop Boys – quite unlike anything that came before it, and yet at the same time entirely theirs. It’s got all their hallmarks, such as the incredibly clever and witty Tennant vocal, and it’s delivered over a slightly naughty 6/8 rhythm. Couple all of that with a video with pointy hats in it, and you really have something incredibly special.
Next up is the sadly inferior original version of I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing, later beaten into fine shape by The Beatmasters. It’s still a sweet song, again with great lyrics, but the production is something of a let-down once you’ve heard the remix. The beautiful Liberation follows. It was a surprising fourth single, but worked extremely well, and given the mood of the song was also a surprisingly big hit. Perhaps the naff house mixes which backed it up helped somehow.
A Different Point of View is classic Pet Shop Boys, in that there’s nothing especially remarkable about it, but somehow it’s a beautiful track, perfectly delivered. This being the early 1990s, it’s got a bit of a house sound to it, but otherwise the production is fairly simple pop – rather overloaded as many Pet Shop Boys tracks are and should be, but nothing too groundbreaking either. Then Dreaming of the Queen brings its hilarious (and now slightly poignant) lyric, again alongside exquisite production.
It’s always nice to have an album with hits that come thick and fast, and Very is one of those. Yesterday, When I Was Mad was the final single, either the fifth or sixth depending on whether you count Absolutely Fabulous, and is a charming and wonderful commentary on the boys’ life in the limelight, with odd tempo changes that seem counterintuitive but work perfectly.
Side B is a little less radio-friendly than Side A, but it still never disappoints. The Theatre is beautiful, perhaps the only song which harks back to the previous album Behaviour (1990). One and One Make Five is a little silly and insubstantial, but it’s also fun and fits in nicely. To Speak is a Sin, a leftover from the Bobby O era prior to Please (1985) is a perfectly delivered description of nervous first encounters.
By Young Offender it’s almost tempting to suggest that we’re deep into filler territory, and the remix is much better (in fairness, it is). But we’re not – this is a dark and deeply atmospheric track which is quite beautiful. And One in a Million would be an exhilarating, uplifting final piece to close the album off.
Would be, if it weren’t for Go West, sitting right on the end, and every bit as glorious as it is camp. It’s almost out of place, and for all the post-Soviet overtones, it is still a little bit silly. But it’s also brilliant, and really should have been number one instead of the infinitely less memorable Boom! Shake the Room!
But wait, even that’s not the end! Leave the CD playing for a few minutes more, and there’s something very special tacked onto the end. Entitled Postscript, or I Believe in Ecstasy, the minute-long bonus track actually features Chris Lowe singing. A totally brilliant ending to a quite exceptional album.
Without a doubt, Very is Pet Shop Boys‘ peak. They had shown their maturity already with the previous album Behaviour, but they were still more than capable of pulling their pop punches and adding a string of hits to their belts. Whatever you think of the subsequent albums, it would be a long time before they hit pop perfection to this degree, and it would be even longer before their commercial success caught up with them to this degree.