Pretending To See The Future #15
by Oliver Rose
Introspective – Pet Shop Boys (1988)
Love them or loathe them, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are one of the most successful duos in British music history. Introspectiveis their third album after the similarly mono-titular Please (1986), Disco (1986) and Actually (1987). Released on the cusp of the late ‘80s acid-house wave in Britain, the record’s six tracks (each surpassing six-minutes in length) fuse the pair’s already proven pop formula with a more nuanced understanding and appreciation of the 12” dance mix and, specifically, its place in the new epoch of house. Eschewing the “album track” format, the album was designed to contain singles exclusively, which it very nearly did – five of these compositions would hit the charts in some form. And in fairness to the guys, it’s clearly a formula that works – to date, 4.5 million copies of Introspective have been sold. Neil Tennant claims it’s the band’s best-selling LP internationally, unsurprising given the variety of cultural textures on this record. From an acid re-work of the duo’s chart-topping Always On My Mind cover (itself a country song originally) to Latinate original Domino Dancing – it might seem disparate, but there’s an adherence to slickly produced EDM here that unifies the collection nicely. Indeed, the breadth of this work is impressive, not just in its broad yet relevant styles, but also for its seemingly endless manifestations, physically – despite releasing an LP punctuated by extended 12” structures, the singles released from Introspective were all remixed further into additional versions (there are between six and seven different mixes of It’s Alright alone).
The record opens with Left To My Own Devices”, Pet Shop Boys’ first song to feature a full orchestra and produced by the legendary Trevor Horn (frontman with the Buggles; founder of ZTT Records). Clocking in at 8:17, and featuring a well-spoken quasi-rap style verse á la West End Girls, it’s an audaciously artsy opener to any album, let alone one composed entirely of extended mixes. Semi-autobiographically detailing a bourgeois day-in-the-life, Neil Tennant intones dryly on the subjects ranging from the narrator’s fantasised secret life as a “roundhead general” and, more infamously, “Che Guevara and De’bussy to a disco beat”. It’s a great track and it’s lyrical quirks are balanced beautifully by the gorgeous string and horn arrangements swathed over Chris Lowe’s throbbing synthesiser genius. The track is followed by an old B-side from Actually’s Rent, entitled I Want A Dog. It receives a thicker, acid-house treatment here with fat a bass-synth line and spiky piano melody, while the lyrics continue the juxtaposition introduced by the previous track: the sublime versus the hebdomadal. Side A concludes with Domino Dancing, a superb Latin dance track with exotic synth-percussion, nylon-strung acoustic guitars and those same, shrill piano twinkles borrowed from Chicago house. Of note particularly here is the excellent breakdown section which begins around the 4:50 mark, featuring a manic splicing segment that showcases some of the cleanest production of the decade.
The energy of the record continues seamlessly into its second side, which begins with I’m Not Scared. A sample of marching troops introduces the track before the resurgence of Lowe’s unmistakably squelchy sampling and Tennant’s posh patter. To experience this track in its full glory, see the cover by Patsy Kensit’s band Eighth Wonder, itself available in a phenomenal 12” disco mix, complete with a French-language breakdown and a hook sample more infectious than the plague. This somewhat subdued moment is followed up by a revised take on Always On My Mind, previously covered by the duo on a non-album single that made the Christmas #1 spot in 1987. Here, the track is initially stripped of the aggressive, smashing drums that own the single mix, and is instead mashed-up with its discordant acidic alter-ego, Always In My House, a Pet Shop Boys original that flips the regretful sentiment of the original track, bemoaning the oppressive constancy of the normally vicitmised ex-lover. Pitch-adjustment on Tennant’s voice makes for a menacing rework of this classic love-song which, halfway through its fifth minute, returns bombastically as the full ’87 single mix. It’s Alright, the LP’s longest track at 9:26, closes proceedings with its socio-political zen and gentle end-of-the-disco vibrancy, blending the sensation of the comedown with the unmistakable aftertaste of the original, adrenalin-fuelled high. The single mixes of this track are superb; far more energised and brilliantly varied, they’re definitely a far more fun way to enjoy this track, if somewhat less poignant.
There’s something a tad dated about Introspective – it’s head is very much in the house scene of the late ‘80s and it’s garish colours and pretentious flamboyance carry connotations, undeniably, to the lycra and neon of yesteryear. However, it’s one of the only records I know of that so shamelessly caters to its core audience, disobeying conventions of length, design and general accessibility in order to fully realise the art of its intention. The record is credited with reducing the popularity of the band in time for their critically-lauded but commercially less-successful Behaviour (1990). If nothing else, I make that a marker of just how well it does what it’s supposed to.