This week marks the 25th anniversary of the release of an extremely unusual album, Introspective by the brilliant Pet Shop Boys.
This was their third album, following only a year after Actually (1987) and very soon after a string of enormous hits including three number ones in the previous twelve months. Somehow, though, they managed to completely reinvent themselves. Gone were the four minute pop songs which they had spent the previous five years writing – this album has nothing under six minutes. But lyrically, Introspective is an entirely apt title, with songs about loneliness, childhood, love, and whatever Domino Dancing is actually supposed to be about.
This is Pet Shop Boys at their best, and yet how can that be? You only get six and a bit songs on this album, and they’re all long dance tracks, aren’t they? Two are cover versions, one was just a hit for Patsy Kensit, and another is a remix of a b-side. Introspective is certainly an unorthodox album.
It begins with absolute class – the heady strings and choral vocals that make up the introduction to Left to My Own Devices are pretty much perfect. After a minute or so, they die, to be replaced by a wonderful – if extremely dated – house backing, for another minute or so, before Neil Tennant finally turns up with another deadpan vocal. It’s glorious, and all the more disappointing in retrospect that it “only” peaked at number four.
With a thunderstorm segue, the Frankie Knuckles remix of I Want a Dog follows. Admittedly a slightly silly song when it was originally released the a b-side to Rent the previous year, the main focus of the song is a list of dog species. But there was also a terrible lonely melancholy to the track, even in its original form, and now, stripped of the list and backed by a dark house beat, it’s incredibly beautiful. Putting a remixed b-side on an album is an odd choice, perhaps even a brave one for the period, but it pays off with style.
Then out of nowhere appears what would later become a Pet Shop Boys trademark – total and complete reinvention. They hadn’t released anything quite like Domino Dancing before, although it was territory they would subsequently re-explore on 1996’s Bilingual album. It’s got trumpets, and latin percussion and riffs. It’s got a summery video with good-looking models getting friendly in the sun. It’s about… dominoes or something? Well, anyway…
There are clear parallels to draw between Introspective and the cut-price remix album Disco (1986), which although solely a remix album uses a similar format, or 1993’s bonus album Relentless. Even the current album Electric seems to owe a debt to Introspective. But none of these quite has the gusto of what has, at least in some circles, been quoted as PSB’s best selling album ever.
Side B opens with the sound of students rioting in Paris in the 1960s, and again completely unpredictably turns into a version of I’m Not Scared, previously a hit earlier in 1988 for Eighth Wonder. When they did it, it was pure pop, with appalling attempts at spoken French and silly eighties trademarks. When Pet Shop Boys covered their own song, it became dark, atmospheric, and incredibly beautiful. Rather than being the simple love song that Patsy Kensit sang, it’s now more of a statement – I’m Not Scared, but I should be.
It’s therefore pretty amazing that we reach Side B, track two before finding anything to criticise. I don’t think they can even be criticised for wanting to include their enormous Christmas hit single Always on Your Mind, and neither should they be criticised for wanting to reinvent it. But even from the opening you can tell that this version isn’t going to be up to much. It kicks off, literally, with a drum intro, and launches into a cut-down house version of the track, which quite simply isn’t particularly interesting.
At the three minute mark, for no particularly obvious reason, Tennant sings “You were always in my house,” instead of “… on my mind,” and an entirely unnecessary house breakdown follows. It has some nice elements – some of the vocals are quite nice; the pad middle section is lovely. The rap, on the other hand, is awful, and the handclap solo that forms the centrepiece of the mix, is horrendous. All you can really say to defend it is, “those were the eighties.”
The final song is a cover of what is, apparently, one of the pioneering early acid house tracks by someone called Sterling Void. All well and good, but as a Pet Shop Boys album closer, it just feels empty and lacklustre, especially when compared to the infinitely better (and more concise) single version which followed nearly a year later. Perhaps Introspective was just released a little too quickly for its own good?
In a way though, it’s comforting that this album is flawed, and this really does nothing to detract from its standing as a masterpiece. Of course it’s dated now, but it has aged well, and matured into something really rather brilliant.
The version you want is the one with the enormous bonus Further Listening disc.