Scott, Thomas -
Excuse my delay: I've a houseguest this weekend, of whom I can say has a great ear. Upon hearing the line "You don't have to read Who's Who to know what's what" on "Did You See Me Coming?" he asked, plaintively, "Did he really say that?"
My initial reaction mirrors yours, Scott. As a fan who thought the Boys recorded only one dud disguised as an acoustic experiment in the last 15 years since "Very," I have no problem with taking them seriously. For one thing, The Boys and I have aged together. Even in the "West End Girls" days, Tennant has never positioned himself as a member of youth culture; he wrote, thought, and sang like a man who thought he earned his right to detachment. Those in the know conflated his detachment with gayness and, of course, they were right, but it reduces the mix of camp, melodrama, and genuine emotion on those early album to semaphores sent to a knowing cult, when the Boys were really interested, like all great pop stars, in projecting mass consumer society's regard for itself back at it.
But something happened during the recording of Behaviour and Very: the loss of their American Top 40 audience, prolonged exposure to Bernard Sumner's swelling gut, or the realization that Tennant was approaching 40 and had rarely written expressly about himself. "Where The Streets Have No Name" and "Very" are two of the happiest records ever recorded -- indeed, who would ever have thought that the Boys would record one of the great testimonials to joy in modern music? -- because Tennant had learned to reconcile his talent for detachment with his need for public reveling in a happy love affair (which is why "I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind of Thing" works as statement and song). There isn't another record with the tone of "Very." Of course the Boys couldn't follow it up. BTW I find it fascinating that in 1993, the year grunge went mega, enough of the Boys' American audience rallied to place Very in the Top 20 -- their highest peak since "Please" -- and to certify it gold.
Scott, I know you're not so found of the two follow-ups. I like Bilingual and love Nightlife because Tennant was still sketching the contours of the new persona. If Bilingual was expert craftsmanship and hence skippable (to most), "Nightlife" brought us full circle to the club culture celebrated in Disco and Please, only Tennant and Lowe are in their mid forties, and as any gay man knows, prospects, expectations, and possibilities change. As Greil Marcus wrote at the time: "Here the group could be starting over from the beginning, in an '80s nightclub, dancing to the drum machine, all possibilities of love and fear present in the way your partner looks you in the eye or over your shoulder." The sumptuousness of the arrangements suited the heightened emotional palette from which Tennant painted this rueful study of a man trying to club because he doesn't want to die alone. He'll settle for any compromise, no matter how embarrassing ("as long as I hear your footsteps in the dark, that's all I 'll need," he sang).
This is a long way of saying that, while I'm still getting taste for this thing, I agree superficially: Tennant hasn't found any new wrintkles in his personal; the record, while blessed with their ususal melodic smarts, sounds like more craftsmanship; no discoveries, not even the expert way in which Tennant-Lowe married their detachment to political commentary on "Fundamental" (an album I also liked a lot). Before I turn to song-by-song analysis in my next post, let me say a good word for "The Way It Used To Be," which builds and swells with all the suppressed passion of their best work.
Whew. Digest this.