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Wednesday, March 27, 2002

HIGH NOTES

Pet Shop Boys: 'Release'


More than 16 years ago, Neil Tennant emerged as the Noel Coward of dance pop when he and fellow Pet Shop Boy Chris Lowe exhorted all the young dudes to "make lots of money." Like the playwright, Tennant sauntered on to the scene fully jaded, his wit already acerbic, his ironies prickly with cynicism.

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But whereas Coward's ingrained misanthropy made him distrustful of romantic love in any guise, Tennant, at least since 1990's "Behavior," has progressed from giving love the benefit of the doubt to allowing it that special place in the universe that pop music has always acknowledged. Some have theorized that Coward, too, would have softened had he lived through the AIDS crisis, but Tennant seems to hold love apart from all other considerations, the only absolute in a world stained by compromise.

The new Pet Shop Boys album, "Release," is almost all ballads, a form that further blurs the demarcations between Tennant's love songs and his cultural observations. One of the reasons the Boys have released so many remix collections (besides the one of making lots of money) is that they remain dance-pop artists even while their creative inclinations become more introspective as they grow older. The perfect synthesis of personal expression and party digression that was "Very" (1993) may now be impossible to achieve. You are, truly, only young once.

So while Tennant has always appreciated directness, on "Release" he practically does away with detachment altogether. "Communication's never been as easy as it is today," he says on "E-Mail," and he means that positively. Airplanes, as he implies on "Home and Dry," may have suddenly become symbols of doom and terror, but they also reunite lovers.

Many will point to "The Night I Fell in Love" as proof that Tennant still gets a kick out of sticking it to philistines and phonies, but it's really more of a novelty than a commentary: A schoolboy sneaks backstage after an Eminem concert and spends a "passionate" night with the caustic rapper ("I guess I'd rate him a 9 out of 10"). Even Marshall Mathers will probably be hard put to suppress a smile when he hears himself "joke" to his little tongue-tied groupie, "Hey, your name isn't Stan, is it?"

Like the other nine cuts, "Night" is pure pop, but the beauty of the music is characterized less by Tennant's smooth vocals and Lowe's keyboard concoctions than it is by Johnny Marr's simple, evocative guitar fills. Marr helps make "Release" the Boys' warmest collection ever. As the former guitarist for The Smiths, he already knows what it's like to work with a singer who would like nothing better than to be Noel Coward. Now he knows what it's like to work with one who's gotten past it.



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