Always on their mind | Daily News


Always on their mind

Robert Potts on the Pet Shop Boys, Kate Bush and where poetry meets pop

In the song “Yesterday, When I Was Mad” (1993), Neil Tennant, the singer and lyricist for the Pet Shop Boys, entertainingly versified some of the more common criticisms the band received:

You have a certain quality which really is unique:

Expressionless, such irony, although your voice is weak.

It doesn’t really matter ’cause the music is so loud.

Of course it’s all on tape but no one will find out […]

And someone said “It’s fabulous you’re still around today

You’ve both made such a little go a very long way.”

Tennant’s delivery is not expressionless, but it does make a virtue of flatness, allowing the language to do much of the work. From the outset, there was an evident literary sensibility in Tennant’s lyrics, and it is not altogether surprising that Faber are presenting a hundred of his songs (and – making a crucial distinction – “one poem”), in a handsome volume, with an introduction and brief notes by the author. Tennant refuses to make greater claims for song lyrics than they can sustain: “I have selected the lyrics that read best on the page, but, in truth, this is not the natural habitat of a lyric … These were written to be sung with music, not read as poetry.”

That said, the selection highlights Tennant’s literary and cultural allusions and influences. “Love is a Bourgeois Construct”, for example, takes its title from a line in David Lodge’s Nice Work; “In the Night”, Tennant reveals, drew on material in Paris in the Third Reich by David Pryce-Jones. The notes are equally comfortable discussing Stefan Zweig or Sunblest bread, Anna Akhmatova or Midnight Cowboy. But Tennant’s style is also more literary than many pop lyricists’, with a dry wit, and, once in a while, some unexpected technical flourishes.

In “King’s Cross”, for example, which begins, “The man at the back of the queue was sent / to feel the smack of firm government” (this was 1987, at the height of Thatcherism), a sleazy, defeated atmosphere is conjured in a few deft strokes, and most pervasively a sense of endless, hopeless deferral:

Someone told me Monday, someone told me Saturday,

Wait until tomorrow and there’s still no way.

Read it in a book or write it in a letter,

Wake up in the morning …

The stanza is begging, surely, for the concluding phrase “and it’s still no better”. But what Tennant delivers, in an apt denial of expectation, is “and there’s still no guarantee”.

In “Your Funny Uncle”, Tennant describes the funeral of a young friend. The song is desperately moving, capturing various shades of awkwardness, regret, love and sympathy among the mourners, but also retains a sense of defiant vivacity:

Me and my friend

we lived our lives completely

from start to end

you and your friend so sweetly

with strength and pride

in spite of everything and swimming

against the tide

to obstinately hope of winning

None of Tennant’s other songs uses so much audible enjambment, nor the mild syntactical confusions here – the result is precisely the stubborn, effortful propulsive energy described.

One Hundred Lyrics and a Poem, realistically, will appeal most to existing fans, for whom the biographical background to the songs will be of great interest. But another strength of Tennant’s work has been to trace gay culture and sensibility through a crucial period, from the early 1980s to the present day: AIDS, Section 28, the debates over the age of consent. In some ways the arrangement of the songs (alphabetical rather than chronological or thematic) is a shame, because that arc of history is rendered less visible.

It is a surprise, in retrospect, that Tennant didn’t come out as gay until 1994, in an interview with Attitude magazine, especially when you consider that the Pet Shop Boys’ exuberant cover of Village People’s “Go West” was released a year earlier, after they had performed it at an AIDS benefit organized by Derek Jarman. Even their earliest albums feel – and felt at the time – part of a confident (but still beleaguered) gay pop scene that included Culture Club, Bronski Beat and Erasure. One reason for uncertainty might have been Tennant’s use of personae, stories and neutral pronouns through the songs (a form of discretion and disguise once common in gay writing); what many took as irony was in fact sincerity, drawing on a specific emotion or occasion and presenting it universally. As Tennant said wryly in the Attitude interview, “It is obviously a failure of ours, that we have given people the impression that what we do is some kind of elaborate joke”.

If Tennant’s volume brims with charming revelation, Kate Bush’s selection of her lyrics is a more private affair, from its title – How To Be Invisible – to its framing. The introduction is by the novelist and superfan David Mitchell, a not unenjoyable and highly personal account of his passion; readers of a certain age will appreciate the fine detail about audio cassettes in the 1980s. It is strongly reminiscent of Philip Chase’s sixth-form magazine review of Tales from Topographic Oceans, in Jonathan Coe’s novel The Rotter’s Club, which ended: “In conclusion, if someone was to ask me who this album was by, and whether or not it was a masterpiece, I would be able to give the same answer: YES!!”

Like Tennant, Mitchell knows better than to get into the perennial “is it poetry?” argument, stating that lyrics are “text presented in a poetry format, but which is avowedly not poetry”, though Bush, in a succinct author’s note, says “All the lyrics have been reviewed as works of verse without their music and so in some places are more detailed than how they originally appeared on the albums”.

Bush is present only in her curation of the material, grouping songs from across her oeuvre that speak to each other; some themes are clearer than others, but it definitely works. Two already existing sequences – the second halves of Hounds of Love and Ariel – are presented here intact. Lines from the song “How To Be Invisible” are distributed between the sections, and there are some playful typographical gestures.

It is an intelligent presentation by an exceptional artist, whose refusal of a public image has been principled and successful. From the outset Bush was a storyteller, and her literary references and allusions range from Emily Brontë to J. M. Barrie, from Hans Christian Andersen to James Joyce. Bush is less concerned than Tennant with historical or political moments and more engaged with archetypes and myths. Her work is extremely sensual and physical; it is full of appetite, longing, obsession. Mitchell is on to something when he says of “Running Up That Hill” that it was “the first song I’d encountered that validated female sexual pleasure as distinct from its male counterpart”; and Bush’s expression, musically and lyrically, of frank pleasure, is central to her work, as is a willingness to explore transgressive desire – for example, “The Kick Inside” (sex with a sibling),“Infant Kiss” (inspired by The Innocents) and “Misty” (sex with a snowman).

An emphasis on the later work (everything from The Dreaming onwards) at the expense of her earliest albums suppresses not just some joyous silliness (the ludicrously jaunty “Coffee Homeground”, coquettishly fending off a poisoner, for example; or the honkytonk mock-Western “James and the Cold Gun”), but other stories of desire or fear that would not have been out of place in this collection – “Babooshka”, a neat little tale of backfiring jealousy, or “Hammer Horror”, one of a number of pieces exploring the porous boundary between the dead and the living, including the charming and ruminative “Blow Away”, with its consoling notion of the posthumous gathering of Minnie Riperton, Keith Moon, Sid Vicious, Buddy Holly and Sandy Denny.

- Times Literary Supplement

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