There is little doubt that the late 1990s were a turbulent period for Pet Shop Boys. After the enormous success of 1993’s Very, Britpop had arrived with a very noisy guitar-fuelled bump, so 1996 saw them reacting by exploring Latin American rhythms and Russian choirs on the brilliantly eccentric Bilingual.
But the bubble had definitely burst, and so it is with their 1999 album Nightlife. It opens in astonishingly good form with the anthemic For your own good, taking heavy influence from the dance scene of the day (particularly Faithless) and doing what Pet Shop Boys always did so well – decisively making it their own.
At this point, Tennant and Lowe were firmly stuck into production of their successful but perhaps slightly misguided musical Closer to heaven, which would debut a couple of years later. Many of the songs on this album made it into the musical too, and the title track Closer to heaven is no exception. Originally inspired by Arthur Baker‘s infinitely better remix of Babylon Zoo‘s Spaceman back in 1996, it’s another enormous track, and could easily have been a single.
But the choices of singles from this album were a little strange, and the first was the expansively titled I don’t know what you want but I can’t give it any more. It’s a great track, and it’s unapologetically a Pet Shop Boys track, but this was an era where only the fan base was going to buy it. Maybe that was the right decision after all – or maybe something else would have sold better. Either way, as a PSB fan, it’s difficult not to love it.
I expect Happiness is an option would have divided people at the time, but it’s difficult to dislike – it’s just so full of unadulterated happiness! Again, taking heavy inspiration from some of the hip hop records of the time, it draws heavy inspiration from classical music, adds a contemporary beat, and brings everything together in quite brilliant fashion.
Then comes the completely unpredictable third single You only tell me you love me when you’re drunk. To all intents and purposes a country song, it could easily be totally out of place here, and yet this is a Pet Shop Boys album – you almost expect it to be eccentric. It’s another brilliant moment.
The first half of the album closes with Vampires, arguably the best track on the entire release. There’s something both beautifully haunting and also very contemporary about it, which is a very catchy combination. And while Radiophonic may have little tangible connection to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, it still makes for another exceptional Faithless-inspired piece.
But as the first paragraph hinted, this was a troubled period for Pet Shop Boys, and although the first half of the album could easily be part of their best release ever, the latter half is sadly among their worst. The only one has little to say in its favour – a dull lyric, and a moronic chorus – although it does at least boast some interesting production. Boy strange has a marginally more interesting lyric, but little else to say in its favour.
In denial does at least boast Kylie Minogue as the guest vocalist, but otherwise I suspect it might have been better left for the musical. Then New York City boy comes across as little more than a failed attempt to emulate the success of Go West. True, it seems less bad now, fifteen years on, but it’s still a little gratuitous. After all that, Footsteps seems positively uplifting, but there’s really nothing special about this closing track either – the lyrics in particular are well below Tennant’s normal standard.
Even if you disagree with some of those later statements, you must recognise that Nightlife is a troubled album. It almost feels as though somehow, deep into the musical, they realised that it was going to take another couple of years to finish, and they were already three years on from the last album, so they needed to throw something together as quickly as possible. Ever the professionals, they still managed to craft it into a reasonably cohesive album, but it does lack the gravitas of, say, Behaviour or Very.
Despite an exceptional array of b-sides, there still isn’t a deluxe version of Nightlife, but you can still find the original album all over the place.