Bilingual- Pet Shop Boys (Parlophone 1996)
UK Chart Position – 4
US Chart Position –39
Studio album number 6 from the Pet Shop Boys missed out on a UK Top 3 chart position, something which the other five had achieved. It’s an extraordinary fact because it was, as far as I was concerned, their fifth essential studio release in a row, and may just very well be my all-time favourite of their albums.
It had been three years since the release of the chart-topping “Very”. In the meantime we had the second album of club dance remixes of tracks in “Disco 2” which reached number 6 and the fairly splendid if a little patchy double album of B-sides “Alternative” which reached number 2. A tour of South America after the release of “Very” provided inspiration for this new release as many of the tracks are infused with a heavy measure of Latin flavour which gives them an extra joyfulness which always makes this CD a pleasure to listen to. In 1996 its early autumn release brought back a little bit of fiesta sunshine into our lives. Unusually, for the album’s original release all of the songs are written by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. The reinvention of a song not associated with them had been around since they hit chart pay-dirt with “Always On My Mind”. (A deluxe edition of the CD was released the following year which contained the boys’ take on “Somewhere” from “West Side Story” which had given them a Top 10 hit single. I don’t think Tennant doing battle with Bernstein’s melody and Sondheim’s lyrics really fits into the concept of the album so we will stick with the original twelve tracks). The album is produced by the Boys with assistance on some of the tracks from Chris Porter, US DJ Danny Tenaglia, and Paul Roberts and Andy Williams who better known as K-Klass had scored a Top 3 hit of their own in 1993 with club classic “Rhythm Is A Mystery.”
Danny Tenaglia & K-Klass
Much of this South-American influence can be found in opening track “Discoteca” in its Spanish chant “Hay una discoteca por aqui?” and complexity of multi-layered rhythms which with its keyboard refrain gives it a real richness of sound. Neil is in questioning self-analytical mode which comes back to the repeated chant and which makes for a haunting, impressive opener. The “Hawaii-5-O” type drums thunder their way straight into the next track which is one of the finest of all PSB singles and my favourite track on the album, the exciting “Single” which begins with its “I’m Single/Bilingual” refrain and eases its way into a song about the lone traveller on international business. A tale of expense accounts, lonely hotel rooms and fax messages waiting at reception – “I come to the community from UK PLC “. It has a great depth of sound to it, and with its musical references to the previous track provides a kind of flow which is unusual for a PSB album. As a single the appropriately titled “Single” was the third released from the album and reached number 14 in the UK. Neil’s still looking for that disco as the track ends and moves into the house-influenced “Metamorphosis” which features sterling vocal work from Sylvia Mason-James. It’s feels like an old style track as Neil delivers one of his impassive raps, which echoes tracks from the previous decade such as “Left To My Own Devices”, his “all about love/it’s a metamorphosis” does give me the same feeling of delight I had when he heard the distant feet of Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat. This is the track that had production duties shared between Pet Shop Boys and K-Klass.
“Electricity” is a slinkier track with its sampled female voice “What does it mean/What are you doing in San Francisco”. It delightfully refers to one of the great neglected acts of the disco era “the greatest show with the best effects since Disco Tex and the Sex O Lettes”. Flamboyant DJ Monti Rock III became Disco Tex in 1974 and scored with two odd-ball extravaganzas of Top 10 singles “Get Dancin’ “ (UK#8,US#10) and the even campier “I Wanna Dance Wit Choo (Doo Dat Dance) (UK#6, US#23). The whole enterprise was a knowing nod towards self-aggrandisement, there was a lot of style (of a fashion) and not much real substance to the act. I can’t imagine they had the greatest show and best effects so I’ve always taken that line ironically, although I’m sure that Disco Tex would have thought that he had the greatest show and best effects. It’s a great line, but to be honest, like the best of the Sex O Lettes there’s not a great deal behind this track other than that repeated refrain.
More joy follows and whoever says the Pet Shop Boys are just miserable needs a dose of “Se Vida E (That’s The Way Life Is)” which continues the feel of the first two tracks, a Mardi Gras of a track, yet always more mid-tempo than I remember. Single wise it was a top 10 hit (UK#8) released in August 1996 a month or so before the album. It certainly gave us an appropriate taste for the album and who can’t warm to lyrics such as;
“Why do you want to sit alone in gothic gloom surrounded by the ghosts of love that haunt your room? Somewhere there’s a different door to open wide. You gotta throw those skeletons out of your closet and come outside.”
Pass me those maracas, Neil! It’s no surprise it was a Top 5 hit in Spain and also got the thumbs up in Finland, where the Boys were used to scoring high chart positions. Things cool down for “It Always Comes As A Surprise” which starts off a little sounding like early Jamiroquai before turning into a pretty love song. There’s none of the conflict of relationships in the previous albums. It’s the sound of contentment in the early days of relationship “You smile and I am rubbing me eyes at a dream come true”. Reading between the lines this may not be the most balanced of partnerships. There’s evidence that the other half is questioning and unwilling to be rushed into “love all night in your bedroom”, but at the moment things are all good for Neil. Nice cool sax solo and the sophisticated Latin elegance is enhanced by a subtle sample from Brazilian bossa nova legend Astrud Gilberto’s “Corcovado”.
“Red Letter Day” is another of the anthemic “Go West” PSB tracks with a drum intro into the male choral voices. I always like these sort of tracks from the Boys and this is up there with the best of them. It was released as the fourth single from the album and it caused its own red letter day making chart history. It probably isn’t the record they would have been hoping to break as it scored the biggest fall of a chart single on its second week in the chart to that date. It came in at a respectable number 9 but the next week suffered a 33 place drop to fall outside the Top 40. Bigger drops have been recorded since then but it seems that this single release was perhaps of real interest to the fans who bought it in the week it came out. Despite this unfortunate occurrence it is still a great track and fits in well on the album.
“Up Against It” combines clever lyrics with a danceable tune, with once again the Latin feel percolating underneath. “The Survivors” feels like it is taking us back to a wintry London in an unshowy ballad. This leads into the track that was the biggest hit from the album “Before”. Released over 4 months before the album it was good to hear it again in this new context. It reached number 7 in the UK charts and made the Top 10 in Finland (again) and Sweden, amongst others. It also scored the duo a Billboard Number 1 as it topped the US Hot Dance Club Play charts. Major commercial US hits had eluded the duo for over 8 years since the heady days of “Domino Dancing” (US#18 1988) their last big hit there to date. This is the first of the two tracks that had been worked on alongside Danny Tenaglia, the other being the disco joy of “Saturday Night Forever” which closes the album in magnificent style. Before this there’s “To Step Aside” which benefits from a sample of what sounds a little like Native American singing, speeded up. Another track which still sounds good twenty-one years later.
“Bilingual” was the last PSB album I would consider to be essential. It’s not that they went off the boil from this point but this unprecedented run of five classic albums came to an end for me with their next release “Nightlife” (1999) which despite the storming “New York City Boy” and great titles such as “I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Anymore” and “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk” didn’t feel quite as relevant as everything that had gone on before. Albums such as “Fundamental”(2006) and “Elysium” (2012) were solid rather than inspirational but they did notch up another first-class release with their 2009 CD “Yes”. Their last album to date has been 2016’s hopefully titled “Super”. As far as I am concerned any one of the albums I have featured as essential would have cemented the PSB’s place in pop music history but the twelve tracks they put out in 1996 might just inch ahead of the greater commercial success of “Very” as their best.
Bilingual is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £4.14 and used from £0.01. It can be downloaded for £4.99. In the US it is currently $10.38 new and used from $3.08 and as a download for $9.49. In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify.