Hau 1, Berlin, September 5, 2012
Olympicmania may been the pill that caused Pet Shop Boys to finally, after thirty odd (or rather, queer) years to overdose on their own Englishness. How else to explain that, after rushing around on a go-kart wearing dunce hats for The Queen’s pleasure, they’ve chosen Berlin as the city for the live debut of tracks from this year’s Elysium (EMI), and one wonders if that title isn’t providing a deliberate distance from Mount Olympus itself? Neil Tennant’s lyrics have always privileged the shops of suburban hairdressers over the chariots of the gods, and human feats of self-deception over the superhuman suspension of mortal barriers. The preferred sport of Pet Shop Boys is, of course, distanced observation, with Chris Lowe’s keyboards often providing a satiric mirror of the Eurohits of the day similar to Tennant’s lachrymose irony. They’re what the Kraftwerk Robots would be if imagined by Arthur Craven.
The formula, on display and livestreamed globally, during this Electronic Beats-sponsored 45 minute event, has not changed much over three decades, though the new record is more lyrically direct than usual. But then, it hasn’t had to. Like their electropop brethren Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys can still ride the charts in certain countries as they’re carried to the cusp of their Sixties, while guitar rockers usually have to give up breaking radio at around age 42 or so. Thank you, Asia! That’s no joke – the record, released in Japan the day of the concert, had already hit the top five. Tennant was proud.
Still, as is common with the aging and beloved, their last few tours have resembled victory laps, feeling more like tributes than performances. Tonight was an exception. Playing to a small room (which included a surprising amount of hippies, including one fellow in a Uriah Heep shirt) and focusing on the most sincere album of their career (if not as directly political as Fundamental), the duo was relaxed, appearing as ur-versions of themselves: Lowe in a leather get-up somewhere between Batman and Prometheus, and Tennant – who increasingly resembles Brian Eno – in a smartly tailored double-breasted suit. With his close crop, he would make a great Blofeld to oppose Daniel Craig.
Elysium has been tarred as a pop star’s memento mori (the flip side of the victory lap), and its title certainly doesn’t harm that analysis. But while the work is undoubtably melancholic – this is a Pet Shop Boys album, after all – Tennant’s attitude on the record is better described as peevish, perhaps even bitchy. There’s a ‘Don’t You Know Who I Am?’ song (‘Invisible’), a ‘Don’t Look at Me That Way’ song (‘Face Like That’), a ‘Stop Asking for My Old Songs’ song (‘Your Early Stuff’) and a ‘My Songs are Better than Your Songs’ song (‘Ego Music’). Oh yes, and a ‘We’re All Gonna Die’ song (‘Hold On,’ based, in the manner of Serge Gainsbourg, on a Handel melody).
Tennant’s performance tonight was a wonder of how certain showbiz gestures can undermine assumed meaning. ‘Hold On,’ which manages to mix global apocalypse with small English cognitions of life-at-a-distance, is ostensibly an optimistic paean but, of course, it is not, and his miniature camp gestures, turning to the sky as he sang ‘Skies so dark today’ were classic (not just classical) Tennant. During the opening number and the release’s most ambiguous work, ‘Face Like That,’ Tennant would act out the song, waving his arms or screwing a face. Which would suggest either a certain sincerity, or theater – which in camp, is another form in sincerity. All while Lowe pawed his Korg in the manner of a LOLcat.
The overall feel was more clubbish and uptempo than the source material, and not particularly elegiac. They also employed two sets of backing singers, each member pre-taped, isolated by video screen; their lighting and directed lack of emotion made them resemble Tim & Eric characters. Their musical effect could just have easily been duplicated by Lowe’s keyboard.
The encore was a morbid cover of the Robin Gibb showcase, ‘I Started a Joke.’ Perfectly suited for Tennant’s nasal range, his attitude pushed it from the mawkish into the arch. ‘You’re a winner,’ Tennant sings, on their Olympic-featured single, to us and the Queen. Adding, ‘Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.’ Pet Shop Boys have never been interested in the victors as much as the spoils and the spoiled. The Olympics shall not be returning to London for a long, long time.
Photo: Monique Wüstenhagen