Everything Means Something
With an ear bent toward eternity, British pop-duo Pet Shop Boys and L.A. producer Andrew Dawson find the sublime sound (minimalist yet California-warm) befitting Elysium?the mythical resting place of fallen heroes in classical Greek philosophy (a pre-Christian concept of Heaven). Closing the first half of the album titled Elysium, "Breathing Space" epitomizes the album's orchestral impulse. The track features Neil Tennant's aching lilt?always signifying gay experience?soaring on a sweeping melodic current of guitar, strings, Chris Lowe's synthesizer and a swirling chorale.
At the literal and thematic heart of Elysium?"Breathing Space" leading into "Ego Music"?PSB posit the concept of "innocence" as a longed-for ideal kept out of reach in life's private/political frustrations and amidst an exploitative culture.
"Breathing Space" expresses a shared yearning for "innocence":
Can I tell you this in confidence
I need to regain that old innocence
The next track, "Ego Music," shows how corrupted pop turns the pose of "innocence" into a commodity:
There's a real purity to my work
A childish innocence
But I'm also smart and sophisticated
I mean I grew up on the street
Tennant sings on "Breathing Space" of his need for respite in terms of paradise ("There's a place beyond this world/ Where the mountains meet the sky"). Although expressing a personal longing, Tennant offers the song as advice and as support ("When your heart is out of luck," he begins his plaint). The song marries imagery and sonics to convey universal longing.
"Ego Music" is the flip-side to Tennant's heroic pop-star beneficence on "Breathing Space." Here PSB satirize contemporary pop (and politics) as being full of "vacuous slogans/ innocuous sentiment" by taking on the persona of contemporary selfishness personified by celebrity: "My commitment is to my career/ And then giving something back." Evidencing the steely precision of Dawson's signature sound (sharpened as engineer on Jay-Z's The Blueprint 3), the track's Brechtian fits-and-starts snap the audience out of complacency. The song ends with the perfect image for the Obama/Gaga-era cult of personality, onto which the mass audience projects its spiritual longing:
In the sea of negativity
I'm a Statue of Liberty
That's why people love me
"Ego Music" erects a monument to the end of civilization.
Hold on! Following "Breathing Space" and "Ego Music," PSB marshal listeners' awareness of the exploited desire for innocence in an appeal to the political imagination. A rousing anthem, "Hold On" expands upon producer Dawson's collabs with the year's breakthrough band: fun.'s youthful odes to camaraderie ("We Are Young"), perseverance ("Carry On") and regret ("Some Nights"). Now, PSB focus the concept of "innocence" to its existential essence. The newness of every moment ("Summer, spring, autumn, and winter/ Melt into a single moment") provides the possibility of renewal, rebirth and revolution. The Pets turn this truth into a call for political action?grounded in a gay lib legacy?with the song's theatrical chorus and call-and-response: "There's got to be a future to create and then defend/ So the world can never end."
The radical achievement of Elysium: the Pets locate evidence of the eternal in gay desire, just as Mark Farrow's Elysium album cover designs make the promise of eternity felt in the glittering water and glowing sky peeking behind white pop-art title placards. On "Memory of the Future," Tennant expresses this desire with an image that realizes this album's title: "Over and over again/ I keep tasting that sweet meadowland." On Elysium, PSB's myths of (personal) gay experience always reflect a consciousness of the eternal: "Invisible" (aging/mortality), "Leaving" (heartbreak/immortality), "Give It a Go" (love/faith), and "Winner" (struggle/sublime).
Thus, PSB engage Gaga?who takes the meaning out of everything?into this pop discourse. As one Elysium song title declares: "Everything Means Something." Significantly, that track features vocal distortions and echoing piano that recall Dawson's production on Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy ("Runaway" and "Blame Game"). Both West and PSB express psychological/spiritual stress in terms of intimacy under duress. On that album, West articulates the pressures of race, sex and capitalism in the Obama-era. OnElysium, Tennant/Lowe confront the modern condition of unthinking cruelty and destabilized meaning:
Carelessness means something
Not simple give and take
Everything means something
Although the meaning can be blurred
That concept of blurred meaning resonates in the "sweet illusion" of "Memory of the Future" and the "apparition" of "A Face Like That." Through undeniable dance beats, this imagery defines?makes clear?the primal longing for innocence in gay experience and for eternity in gay desire that strikes a universal chord. The immediate pop pleasure of "Memory of the Future" and "A Face Like That" (which should have been the album's first two singles) also makes for the best semiotics?semiotics you can dance to. Note the deconstruction of pop codes on "Your Early Stuff" and "Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin." The former validates the spiritual essence of music even when it is created by dated expressive tools ("old machines") through the backing track's query and vocalization: "What's your na-a-ame?" The latter validates the genuine meaning of the gesture: "Our last chance for goodbye." This illustrates the political?distinctly semiotic?challenge of Elysium. The Pets define the heroic action that earns a place in Elysium: to restore meaning and spiritual value to life. Without it, Gaga's young gay fans will keep killing themselves.
Look for John Demetry's new book from ResistanceWorks WDC also read his Community of Desire.
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