Chris Bohn: Thoughts on <i>Elysium</i>

With all due respect to the prematurely departed—those friends or enemies missing in action: the lovelorn lost, the playground fallen, the kidnaps gone wrong, the drive-by shootings, the drug-buddy ODs, be it happy accidental or tragicomically overwrought—death is wasted on the young. Believe us, kids. Listen to your non-Pa! We’ve been there, done that, danced the Death Disco, fell on our backs and watched in awe as Death in his dandified grandeur rode through the wall on a horse. Oh how we cried, our faces pancake-white and our eyes so heavily mascaraed we couldn’t even blink as we wept black tears for those who fell beneath the hooves of his trusty steed. But when you’re sitting opposite some black-coated goon slumped under his dandruff-drecked cowboy hat on the last train to the terminal zone only to be rudely awakened by some Charon, the Ferryman-wannabe in a rail conductor’s uniform, please don’t tell me you’re not glad to learn you’ve arrived at the wrong Elysian fields. This is not Elizium, the 1990 album by Fields of the Nephilim. This is Elysium! By Pet Shop Boys! Seriously, with whom would you rather spend your eternity? That gormless Goth wandering as he wonders whether he’s dead or alive? Some church-burning Scandinavian doom metal gloom-monger pleading he’s on the guest list to the hard-faced Valkyrie guarding the gates of Valhalla? Or Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, basking, bemused, in a land fit for heroes beneath the autumnal glow of a career that’s already pushed past three decades?

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Death is the great leveler, for sure. But counter to the underground tendency to level down, Pet Shop Boys have always been about leveling up. Elysium, their leveling of the Elysian Fields as a land fit for their kind of heroes, is a celebration of lives that bear an uncanny resemblance to their own, as opposed to a gloomy Wagnerian purgatory for warriors cursing the blows that laid them low before they’d had time to properly atone for a lifetime of vainglorious sin. I can’t think of any other song, film or theater play that nails the tone of the times (1981 until now) so precisely, or with such wit and poignancy, as Elysium. Be it from the UK mainstream or the underground, nothing else gets close to summarizing such abject yet exhilarating times as this, the eleventh studio album (depending how you count them) of Pet Shop Boys’ career. From its opening track ‘Leaving,’ through to the closing ‘Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin,’ Elysium sees Lowe and Tennant looking back over their lives from the luxurious position their imagined death has brought them. “It’s all about being old, really,” laughed Lowe, in an interview in the August issue of the UK electronic dance magazine Mixmag. “It’s about death,” corrected Tennant. “It begins and ends with death.” “Death, old, aging . . .” expanded Lowe. “But it is uplifting,” continued Tennant. “We considered calling the album Happy Sad. In the Eighties, right at the beginning of our career someone said ‘how would you describe your music?’ And we said ‘happy-sad.’”

“Happy-sad”? That feels exactly right, not just as a summary of the broad, 180-degree range of emotional expression this conjunctive coupling implies, but also for the way Tennant’s use of it obliquely references Tim Buckley’s third album, recorded three years before Los Angeles’s most hippy-sensitive singer-songwriter found the funk route to the more directly worded sex-need songs of his 1972 album Greetings from LA. He and Lowe might have been part of a UK pop generation liberated by punk’s anti-virtuosic DIY ethos, but they only found an escape route from the frankly unsustainable position that punk had locked itself into with its grubby disgust for human organs and all their disgusting secretions, to a truer representation of trapped human emotions in the machine-disco laid down by Kraftwerk and David Bowie during his heart-frozen Los Angeles-Southern France-West Berlin sequence of albums Station to Station, Low, Heroes, and Lodger.

Pardon me for going so far back, but in the interest of human temporal accuracy, it’s necessary to point out that the cycles of love and death turned by Pet Shop Boys’ Elysium begin even earlier. Please fast-forward to Elysium’s dying moments: the very last seconds of ‘Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin,’ where a motor revs up for its ill-fated chicken run with the Grim Reaper. By closing the album with the tiger-purr of a biker about to meet his maker, à la The Shangri-Las’ ‘Leader of the Pack,’ or John Leyton’s Joe Meek-produced UK hit ‘Johnny Remember Me,’ Pet Shop Boys root Elysium in the kind of songs that pretty much began pop’s morbid thrill in the presence of death.

“Night speeds by,” wrote the ancient Roman poet Virgil, in the Aeneid. “And we, Aeneas, lose it in lamenting. / Here comes the place where cleaves our way in twain. / Thy road, the right, toward Pluto’s dwelling goes, / And leads us to Elysium. But the left / Speeds sinful souls to doom, and is their path / To Tartarus th’ accurst.”

No other album runs the gamut between the classical grace of the ancient world and 1960s death-pop euphoria to find its own warmly witty melancholy place in the sun as Elysium. By its end, of course, it is also deeply moving—and that’s not just because news of the album’s themes has generated fears among their longtime fans that the record might be the duo’s way of saying goodbye. But their followers should have learned by now that nothing Pet Shop Boys say is that straightforward. When they tell you “death is not the end,” they’re not looking to earn some brownie points with blues or gospel fans or, God forbid, traditional Christian believers. Rather, they could be saying that thirty years into a career during which they have witnessed the deaths of friends and colleagues—from illness, AIDS, carelessness or old age—now’s as good a time as any to step back and take a measure of their lives. Unlike their hated rock ’n’ roll forebears and contemporaries (see their 1996 throwaway track, “How I Learned to Hate Rock ’n’ Roll”), Pet Shop Boys were always somehow so much older then; they’re not about to start pretending they’re younger than that now. Elysium begins with two songs deeply sighing at the passing of time, but Tennant sings them with a degree of acceptance completely at odds with the embarrassing clinging-on to lost youth endemic to those immersed in mass culture (worst example: the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger). The opening track ‘Leaving’ lays out the album’s themes of times passing, memories of the pleasures taken, now ready to be passed down to coming generations. It’s followed by the profoundly affecting ‘Invisible,’ on which Tennant poignantly reveals the self-doubts and indignities of an aging star moving anonymously through the playgrounds where he used to play. I can only think of one other song where the singer similarly recognizes that his body can no longer satisfy either his own ardor or that of the younger bodies that might have once prostrated themselves before his star status: Leonard Cohen’s ‘Tower of Song,’ though ‘Invisible’ is all the more moving as a documentation of the singer’s survival through an era when AIDS made an ideal taboo-couple of sex and death for the tabloid vultures always at the ready to swoop in and rip apart the corpses of the famous, whose private lives they had hitherto mercilessly probed and exploited.

The lives Lowe and Tennant have shared as Pet Shop Boys began in the very early Eighties, at a time when the combination of disco’s ascendancy and AIDS threw punk’s self-appointed sanctimonious “be thyself” DIY declarations into confusion by introducing human pleasure into its pop-political equation of confrontation. For a good-turned-very-human Catholic boy like Pet Shop Boys’ vocalist and lyricist Tennant, punk’s DIY agenda alone could never truly provide him the tools to cover the range of human feelings his youthful libido opened out before him. Hell hath no fury like an altar boy scorned. The young Tennant long ago bailed out of a Heaven with little to no understanding of the fickleness or failings of fleshly desire. The songs of Elysium make clear that neither the Pope’s purploid denunciations of the sins of the flesh or the Church of England’s altogether colder state Protestantism ever truly inhibited the heat-seeking targets of Pet Shop Boys’ base or emotional needs.

Musically and lyrically, Pet Shop Boys are as ever united as one on Elysium’s privileging of play as the primary counter in their love games with the hateful world of pop and politics around them. From the start they had learned well from the triumvirate of British pop-cultural eccentrics: David Bowie, Roxy Music, and the self-described “stately homo of England” Quentin Crisp. Now—as then—they come up with ever more extraordinary chameleon-like ways of remaining the Pimpernel-like “now you see them, now you don’t” outsiders of a proscriptive society that’s quite happy to embrace them for the worldliness of their success—even as it chooses not to acknowledge the imp of the perverse that keeps their music jumping easily between the high and low arts of pop and art song, disco dancing and ballet, place-holding appearances on Hollywood soundtracks and their self-made scores for beloved Eisenstein movies. They get away with it by being at once quicker and slower off the mark than the rest. And they always get in their retaliations far faster than the first wounds their enemies might direct at them.

Ordinarily, irony is the curse of the English thinking classes. Indeed it was the death of the likes of Heaven 17, ABC and the other pop entryists Pet Shop Boys started out with at the beginning of the Eighties. I’ve no doubt that the young Pet Shop Boys wanted in as much as the rest of them, but from the beginning they have been remarkably adept at giving the impression they could take or leave whatever success came their way. No other group has ever made a sense of indifference central to their music or being and survived for so long. Better, perhaps, to define their modus operandi as objective detachment. Such a remove at once animates and ripples through the songs of Elysium. No other group has ever stood back and satirized their peers so acutely as Pet Shop Boys do on songs like Elysium’s ‘Ego Music’ (“It’s all about vacuous slogans . . . Innocuous sentiment . . . fake humility . . . Sense of entitlement . . .”) No other group would slip such an acerbic aperçu of the state of folk-rock now into the same song (“Sometimes I think I’m a simple folk singer / Other times a scary witch diva”). No other album would shift from underground electro to the no-holds-barred Garland-Streisand-Glee-kids showstopper ‘Hold On.’ Now more than ever, on Elysium’s celebration of their shared musical life, Tennant and Lowe effortlessly slip in and out of styles up to and including the denim and leopard skin dress code of the album’s closing requiem. Password for admittance: Don’t make a fuss, dear.

Death, where is thy sting?