An album which is often either overlooked or maligned is Pet Shop Boys‘ eighth studio release, Release, which came out fifteen years ago this week. Having seen a steady decrease in success for nearly a decade, and having also sat on the sidelines while indie rock took over the UK charts, they decided to go for a much more raw, rock-inspired sound. The fact that this coincided with a resurgence in electronic pop on the radio is a classic Pet Shop Boys move.
It opens, unusually for Pet Shop Boys, with the lead single Home and Dry, an understated lead track with a delightful synth line. It’s a great synth song – honestly it was never going to be a huge hit, and did pretty well to scrape in at number 14, but in the context of this album, it fits very nicely.
Second (and in many countries final) single I Get Along comes next, famously a song about Tony Blair‘s relationship with spin doctor Alistair Campbell. It’s a rock ballad, and didn’t cut down especially well into its edited single version form, but in full album form, it’s a great song, and could easily have fitted on any number of 1960s LPs.
Birthday Boy is another rock ballad, a fun pop song about Jesus. In retrospect, this surely deserved a place on their Christmas EP a few years later. One of the nicer aspects of this song is hearing Neil Tennant sing in a much lower register than normal – actually slightly lower than he seems comfortable with at times. But it’s always nice to hear male vocalists singing in a more natural range.
Then comes London, the German-only third single, a sweet, guitar-driven song about immigrants from Eastern Europe coming to the UK to look for work, and finding some of the excitement that the city can hold. Where I struggle personally with this song is its use of autotune – it’s already turned up a couple of times on this album, and already it’s starting to sound a bit overused. On London, it does start to jar a little (you can read more of my thoughts on the subject here).
E-Mail is next, and marks a definite end to Side A of this album, an extremely accurate and contemporary song about falling in love via electronic media. Unusually for Pet Shop Boys‘ 1990s releases, but in common with the theme of Release, there are only ten tracks on here, and some of the best tracks of the era (Always is perhaps the most notable) ended up as b-sides or on Disco 3, which appeared the following year.
But there are some more electronic moments here, and Side B opens with The Samurai in Autumn, a semi-instrumental dance track which actually fits nicely here due to its grimy production. It’s about the state of the duo’s career at the time of the preceding album Nightlife (1999), and sees them at their most introspective on this album.
The next two tracks are undoubtedly the best on here, and I’d be hard-pushed to choose between them. Love is a Catastrophe is an exceptional piece, and what it really highlights is that Pet Shop Boys have taken a very different songwriting approach with this album – it’s not just the songwriting that’s different, they have really never recorded anything quite like this anywhere else. Then Here, which really should have been called Home, had it not been for the opening track on the album. In many ways this is a return to their normal style, but done extremely well.
Most of the way through the album, its reputation as one of their poorer efforts is looking extremely unfair, but there are valid criticisms. One for me would be the way it was marketed – I’ve never really seen any good reason why it would have been called Release – it’s a good name, but it doesn’t really fit the music – and while the artwork, a series of embossed flowers, is great, that fits neither the title nor the songs.
But those are minor quibbles, it’s still a great package. Until The Night I Fell in Love, anyway. I do appreciate what they were doing here – someone did need to show Eminem that he can’t go around being mean to everyone else without some degree of comeback. It’s pretty clever too – suggesting someone so publicly homophobic would actually be gay is genius. The best comeback Eminem could manage was suggesting he had run Pet Shop Boys over in his car in Canibitch. Anyway, perhaps this might have been better as a b-side?
You Choose is the final track on here, another example of their having taken a very different songwriting approach. It’s a really strong closing track, which fits the theme of the album very nicely, and it features a typically wise Tennant lyric.
So Release might not be perfect, but it does have a lot to offer, and fifteen years on, it’s definitely worth giving another chance. You might still end up concluding that it’s Pet Shop Boys‘ least good album, but that’s no bad thing either – it’s up against some pretty stiff competition to be their best.
You should still be able to find copies of the original Release of release, but you might want to wait, as the rumour mill suggests a new reissue might be on its way.