Pet Shop Boys, Nonetheless review: The duo’s canny cultural commentary is always right on the money

Neil Tennant spins intoxicating tales of dancefloor liberation and queer trailblazers

Helen Brown
Thursday 25 April 2024 14:04 BST
Pet Shop Boys release their 15th album ‘Nonetheless’ on 26 April
Pet Shop Boys release their 15th album ‘Nonetheless’ on 26 April (Supplied by label)

“Why am I dancing/ When I’m so alone?” asks Neil Tennant over the disco beats of Pet Shop Boys’ 15th studio album, Nonetheless. No prizes for guessing this record was written during lockdown. But while many musicians found themselves expressing such sentiments for the first time during the pandemic, the draft of ecstatic melancholy has always blown through this synth-pop duo’s work. From their Eighties beginnings, the Pets have written bangers for the escapist island of a gay dance floor with blunt, lyrical acknowledgement of the cold and choppy surrounding seas.

Nonetheless – which maintains the band’s strict quality control without any notable change in sonic style – finds Tennant looking back on his own formative experiences in those clubs. On “New London Boy”, his ageless falsetto peers back through the decades (with synth notes zigzagging like a vintage TV flashback dissolve) to remind us of the days that he and his glam boys, dressed “plastic and showy”, danced to “Roxy and Bowie”. Tennant moved from Newcastle to London to reinvent himself as both a gay man and a pop star. Here, he sings: “Is everybody gay? Am I just kidding myself I’ll go all the way?”

Chris Lowe has always been a brilliant evoker of the uniquely English urban scene and producer James Ford (first-time Pets collaborator) doesn’t mess with the formula. His beats crunch like broken glass beneath platform soles; a mournful saxophone echoes as off the urine-stained tiles of a zone four underpass; synths mirror the ripple of neon lights in pools of spilt drinks, and keyboard phrases click up and down tones like indicators on waiting minicabs. Romance and threat are balanced like a stiletto on a wonky kerb as Tennant launches into one of his deadpan Brit “West End Girls”-style raps – a neat tribute to the 1984 hit, which celebrates its 40th birthday this month. “Skinheads will mock you/ Call you a f**,” eye-rolls Tennant. “Last laugh is yours/ There’s a brick in your bag.” (A reference to a Geordie drag queen who carried a brick in her handbag for self-defence.)

Fans of Tennant’s historical storytelling will enjoy his tales of queer trailblazers. Complete with a harp to conjure the breeze in the palm fronds of the French Riviera, the slow-swooning “Love is the Law” imagines Oscar Wilde on his post-prison visit to Nice in the 1890s, watching the gay cruising scene where desire is exposed as “a trick of the trade” and “a slip of the tongue”. The story of ballet dancer Rudolf Nuryev’s 1961 defection from Soviet Russia is bopped out with beats too quick for high kicks on “Dancing Star”. There is a yearning for escape that echoes through every track.

On “A New Bohemia” Lowe and Ford lift a rather plodding melody with sighing strings and thudding drums as Tennant slips out archly cosmopolitan rhyme schemes: “Where have they gone/ Les Petits Bon-Bons?” He also has fun rhyming “bohemia” with “free-and-easier”. Tennant’s lyrical cleverness, perfect grammar and slightly detached tone lie against the ear like a cool, crisp hotel pillowcase. He dishes out some camp silliness on the pre-programmed casio bossa nova of “The Secret of Happiness” and the twanging 1960s guitar of “The Schlager Hit Parade”: “Sexy, sexy, sexy/ Healthy boys and girls.”

The biggest bangers are throbbing glitterball lead single “Loneliness”, the brass-bolstered “Why Am I Dancing?”, and the terrific “Bullet for Narcissus”. The latter is sung from the perspective of Donald Trump’s personal protection officer. It’s a terrific concept for a song, this ballad of a man who is expected to take a bullet for someone he sees right through. There’s a funk snap to the jaunty tune as the agent relishes watching his leader’s make-up run with sweat, and mulls: “I wonder if he’s realised/ That right behind him he’s despised?” I can’t think of another pop act who’d get you throwing shapes to such a strange and specific conundrum.

There’s nothing revolutionary about this very solid release from a kitemarked institution of an act. But Nonetheless proves that the Pets have still got the brains, still got the hooks. And their canny cultural commentary remains on the money.

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