As I have said many, many times, I don’t like synthpop. And one thing I can say about the Pet Shop Boys is that they love synthpop. They lean into it perhaps more than any other synthpop band that came along later in the history of the genre. (I am speaking from ignorance here so maybe it’s not quite that extreme.) And so I find it quite a chore to listen to them.
I will say that the big differentiating factor between them and many other groups is that they can write songs. At their catchiest, I’m not sure too many other synthpop artists can compete. Not everything is as catchy as “West End Girls” of course but a lot of it is.
Much has been made of Tennant’s lyrics and certainly he is a better lyricist than many synthpop lyricists. But this is a low bar. He really clears it, but I’m never sure how many of these songs would succeed in a different context. (Some of them would, for sure.) At least he has a clear voice. (Though I just learned he didn’t write the first song, which confuses the hell of me because I totally thought it was him.)
The hang up for me is the aesthetic: even though these guys do deploy the odd instrument that is not a synthesizer (guitar, saxophone) you rarely notice. This is “electronic” music save Tennant’s voice and it is oh so 1986. (Can anything get more ’80s than Tennant’s super white semi rap on the verses of “West End Girls”?)
My biggest problem is I cannot separate the songs or Tennant’s voice from the instruments and production. When I can do this in synthpop – or where I honest-to-goodness like the arrangement, like with some Eurythmics songs or Thompson Twins songs – then I can get over my aversion to music made this way. But I cannot get there with this band. I’m not sure if it’s just because how much they lean into contemporary music technology or if it’s something else.
But I can’t get there. (Also, I get that these are catchy songs. But it’s 1986. Synthpop has existed for a minimum of 5 years at this point. They’re not reinventing the wheel here.)