Introspective- Pet Shop Boys (Parlophone 1988)
UK Chart Position – 2
US Chart Position -34
Just over a year after their essential “Actually” Pet Shop Boys released their third studio album. It featured just six tracks giving them a chance to explore more extended dance-orientated material. It was a bit of a risk, commercially, with buyers probably looking for value for money and with fans being likely to own at least one of the tracks already released as a single, but it paid off with another double platinum album in the UK, becoming worldwide not just their biggest selling album up to this time but their best.
“Introspective’s ” concept was to put out what were in essence 12” mixes on one album. The tracks that were released as singles were put out in shorter formats. The title refers to the lyrics as in reality musically, these were certainly not introspective as they were out and out dance tracks. On paper it might have seem rather hastily put together, and was hot on the heels of “Actually” which was still selling at the time of this follow-up’s release. Three of the tracks had been recorded by other artists, one had been a B side of a previous PSB single and only two were produced specifically for the album. It does, however, work magnificently and bringing in Trevor Horn for production duties lead to an over-the-topness which lays beautifully alongside the occasionally quite sombre lyrics.
Trevor Horn (a little earlier than his work with PSB)
The opening track sets the tempo and feel of the album magnificently. “Left To My Own Devices is grandiose from its first notes- a violin sweep to a full orchestra with an operatic female voice singing what sounds remarkably like the word “arse” before the club beat kicks in. This was the first time the PSB worked with a full orchestra. Both musically and lyrically this is superb. The full-to-the-gills production cuts into Neil’s impassive rap and lyrics such as;
I was a lonely boy, no strength, no joy
In a world of my own at the back of the garden
I didn’t want to compete, or play out on the street
For in a secret life I was a Roundhead general.
The song is perhaps best remembered for its mid section when after a particularly lively orchestral flourish it empties out for Neil’s spoken;
I was faced with a choice at a difficult age
Would I write a book? Or should I take to the stage?
But in the back of my head I heard distant feet
Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat
These four lines seem to sum up the appeal of the Pet Shop Boys to me. The questioning outsider keeping their options open with the urge to be just fabulous. For those of us who hear Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat, Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant, I salute you!
From this point in the track the orchestral arrangement builds further in this stunning Trevor Horn/Stewart Lipson production which sounds all at the same time like classical music, movie theme and a great disco track. It’s eight minutes and sixteens seconds of unadulterated pleasure. Harps and handclaps compete before the opera voice returns. It all builds to a rousing climax and can only be really finished off with a thunderstorm. This track reputedly took months to produce and listening to it you can tell why. As an edited single it reached number 4 in the UK charts, but you really need to hear the whole thing. It did slightly better in Ireland where it reached the top 3 and made the top 10, in amongst other markets, Finland, Germany, Poland and Spain.
“I Want A Dog” had seen life as the B-side to the single “Rent” but here is extended to six minutes and fifteen seconds in a Frankie Knuckles remix. It’s a song about someone, who, basically, wants a dog. There’s a yearning for company throughout which always pulls at the heart-strings perhaps exemplified by the line “When I get back to my small flat/I want to hear somebody bark”. It could be trite if it wasn’t a kicking house track set up by its lengthy instrumental introduction. In fact the first line almost seems like an anti-climax after what has been building up, but you’re soon sucked into the song. “Don’t want a cat/scratching its claws all over my Habitat”. I’ve always taken that last word to refer to furniture bought at the shop of the same name, hence the capital letter. It’s not my favourite track on the album but it always brings about a poignant smile.
“Domino Dancing” is the second of the two tracks recorded specifically for the album and was also the second single released prior to the album’s release. There’s a great Latin flavour in this track from the keyboard work. Once again this is the longer 7 mins 40 version of the song which as a single reached number 7 in the UK charts. That Latin flavour got the thumbs up from Spain where it topped the charts as it did in Finland and made the Top 5 in amongst other regions, Germany, Ireland, Norway, and Switzerland and became their last Top 20 US hit reaching number 18. An autumn release may explain its slightly muted response in the UK as it feels like a heat of the summer track, released a month or so earlier this could have captured the feel of the holiday season. Mixed with Wham’s “Club Tropicana” you’d taste the Pina Colada and smell the Ambre Solaire.
It’s off to the parade for a marching band intro to “I’m Not Scared” which had already done the business earlier in 1988 when the version by Patsy Kensit led Eighth Wonder became their biggest hit reaching number 7 in the UK. Lyrically, I have no idea. there’s actors on the street and that dog Neil wanted two tracks ago seem to be about to attack. There’s an unreal urban sense of menace to this track which is just a little scary and on the PSB version the sound of jackboots marching in the street is pervasive and a little chilling.
Cover version next and it’s a great one. Released as a single this became the Christmas number one of 1987 released in the midst of the tracks from their previous album and taken from the PSB movie “It Couldn’t Happen Here” which I’ve covered in my review of “Actually”. “Always On My Mind” is a slightly cheesy song which is perfect fare anyway for the boys but here it’s toughened by slipping into “In My House” an extended house workout. Another track which is really sublime in its full length version- here its comes in just over nine minutes. The edited single also topped the charts in Canada, Finland, Gemany, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. It is one of the duo’s biggest ever singles worldwide and in 2014 in a BBC poll was voted the best cover version of all time.
Album closer “It’s Alright” is at nine minutes 24 the PSB’s longest ever album track, and truth be told, it does go on a bit. It’s another cover version this time of a Chicago House track recorded by Sterling Void which the boys heard on a compilation album. The original, produced by legendary House producer Marshall Jefferson did become a small hit once “Introspective” was released (#53 teamed as a double A Side with “Runaway Girl”). The Trevor Horn production on the CD is impressive but by this time this listener is beginning to feel that he has over-indulged slightly on the club sounds (not that bad a thing to happen, but slight rhythm fatigue is setting in by this point). As a UK single it reached number 5 and made the Top 3 in Germany and Ireland. It’s an optimistic, reassuring end to what have been some quite sombre moments lyrically on the album but it lacks the magic of some PSB lyrics to put it amongst their greatest tracks.
I think the reason I love this album so much is its combination of PSB disaffection with a more strident production sense than we had ever heard before. The group are morphing from a bedroom based recording duo to a pair who can take all musical forms in their stride and give it the Pet Shop Boys feel. It really is “Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat”, but it is also a lot more and from this release you can appreciate that these boys would be able to go on to score movies and write operas. It’s arty, accessible, exhausting and great fun. This would be their second but not their last essential release.
The chosen video is for the single mix of “Left To My Own Devices”. You’ll have to dig out the album version to hear the opera woman sing “arse”!
Introspective is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £5.99 and used from £0.72. It can be downloaded for £7.99. In the US it is currently $16.99 new and used from $1.99 and as a download for $11.49. In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify.