Back to the '90s: Pet Shop Boys inject soul into synth-pop with 'Behaviour'

Synth-pop has never been afforded much respect by music critics. Like disco and techno, it has been accused of lacking soul, and its creators of being too lazy to learn and use real instruments. While there are plenty of examples that fit this description, it is not by any means an apt characterization of the genre.

Far from sounding dated, works like Human League’s “Dare,” Yaz’s “Upstairs at Eric’s,” New Order’s “Brotherhood” and Depeche Mode’s “Some Great Reward” are quite relevant in light of today’s electronically inclined artists, from Lady Gaga to Cut Copy.

Bright as those lights may have been, no group took synth-pop to such great heights as Pet Shop Boys. Better known for singles like “West End Girls” and “What Have I Done to Deserve This,” the Boys were no slouches when it came to full length albums. Their début, “Please,” is packed with joyful dance club anthems that follow-up “Actually” improved upon.

With 1990’s “Behaviour,” Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe continued in the vein of their earlier releases, but added a touch more depth. The album starts out strong with what may be their finest song, “Being Boring,” in which Tennant reflects on a life well-lived, not without loss but certainly without regrets.

The other two singles, “So Hard” and “Jealousy,” are also quite strong, the latter almost regal with its synthetic horns near the end. But the lesser-known tracks are what make the album so successful.

Just to pick a few, “My October Symphony” may be the only synth-pop song about the fall of the Soviet Union, “How Can You Expect to be Taken Seriously?” chides self-important rock stars to a New Jack Swing beat and “This Must Be the Place I Waited Years to Leave” is a not so fond look back at adolescence sung to a dark and driving accompaniment reminiscent of Cabaret Voltaire.

At their best, Pet Shop Boys crafted immaculate pop music and paired it with thoughtful and clever lyrics.  If synth-pop as a genre has been given a bad name, one would be hard pressed to find anything Neil and Chris have done to deserve it.

— Nicholas Coleman

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