Bilingual (1996) seems to be commonly regarded as the point at which Pet Shop Boys lost it. Previous album Very had provided their only number one hit, and Go West had come close to giving them their fifth chart-topping single. By 1996, everyone else was listening to dreary indie rock, and Pet Shop Boys were found recording New York house and Latin American drums. How out of touch could they get?
But the introduction to Discoteca is so good! That synth arpeggio, and then the solemn and sad opening lyric “¿Hay una discoteca por aquí?” before the enormous drums arrive, a minute or so in. This is just exceptional. After four minutes, it mixes into the third single, which on here is called Single (on the actual single, it was renamed Single-Bilingual). There wasn’t really anything else like this on the charts, and so perhaps it isn’t so surprising that it fell a bit flat, but it’s still extremely good. There’s a lot of energy in here, and it would be difficult not to love it.
Having said that, Metamorphosis has quite a lot of energy, but the shallow house beats are a bit annoying, and make the whole thing sound a bit flat. In the lyrics, Neil Tennant tells us about growing up, and there’s plenty to enjoy, but the lack of “hook” and the slightly vacuous sounding backing spoils it for me.
I gather a lot of people aren’t too keen on Electricity, with its weird electronic noises and odd lyrics, but I love it. It’s much darker than anything else we’ve heard so far, and serves a valuable function in bringing the mood down. It might not be a traditional song, but it still fits nicely here with the theme of foreign travel and anonymity.
Then comes Se a vida é (That’s the way life is), the slightly linguistically misguided second single from this album. Somewhere between a translated cover version and a new Pet Shop Boys composition, it probably deserved to be a huge hit, but this was 1996, and so while it reached the top ten and got a lot of radio play, that was as good as it got.
The first half of the album closes with the slower It always comes as a surprise, a sweet but very sober song. It would be easy to forget it, and think of it as just a downtempo piece, but there’s something rather beautiful about it, with its partially acoustic, partially orchestral, and partially electronic backing.
The second half brings us some exceptional moments, from the opening fourth single A red letter day, here in its original form before it got messed around with, to the beautifully atmospheric Up against it. The survivors strongly evokes the feeling of walking around London, and then first single Before transports you to mid-1990s New York. I remember being a bit taken aback by Before when it came out, with its high-pitched vocals and house beats, but if you can accept it for what it is, it’s actually rather brilliant, and the panpipe interlude is quite unique. Wherever this album takes you, it seems to be deep and meaningful in a way that much of Very – great though it was – may not have been.
Finally, tucked away at the end, you get the adorable To Step Aside, with its mangled sample of children singing, and then the final track Saturday night forever. Unfortunately here the name is rather better than the song – the title suggests a disco-flavoured, 1970s-inspired piece, but it’s a fairly dull house track which should probably have been left off altogether. After such a strong album, it’s a little disconcerting to see things fall apart on the closing tracks.
Of course, when Bilingual came out originally, Pet Shop Boys had only been releasing albums for a little over ten years. Now this album is already two decades old, and has actually dated rather well. It’s different from what you might expect, but despite a couple of minor failings, it’s definitely one worth tracking down.
If you can find either of the double CD versions of Bilingual, go for that – otherwise, the standard release is perfectly adequate and comes in nice frosty packaging.