The Pet Shop Boys have been known as the premier ironists of electronic music for so long that it’s difficult to think of them as anything else. The duo of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have dwelt in the world of arch witticism, post-modern imagery and the deconstruction of pop music for so long that it would be understandable to peg them as one trick ponies. But while ironic detachment has been the Pet Shop Boys’ stock in trade for decades, only those with truly deep sentiments can convincingly pretend to be shallow. And after a slew of successful singles and top 10 albums in their native United Kingdom throughout the 1980s, Tennant and Lowe began a new decade with a startlingly honest new album: 1990’s Behaviour.
From the success of their signature song “West End Girls,” the Pet Shop Boys have usually trucked in ambiguity, letting Tennant’s lyrical imagery and pop culture savvy imbue lines like, “You’ve got a heart of glass or heart of stone/ Just you wait til I get you home” with a weird playfulness. But nearing the end of the ‘80s, Tennant had already begun to feel the salad days of the band were drawing to a close, resulting in the unusual release Introspective (1988), an album of extended mixes of new songs, which were remixed and pared down for radio play. However, even the relatively downbeat singles “Left to My Own Devices” and “Domino Dancing” couldn’t predict the melancholy edge of Behaviour. Even though the album would ultimately be something of the end of their first act, to be swiftly followed by even greater commercial success and a revamped image, it doesn’t take a stretch of imagination to listen to the album and hear it as a swan song, a sentimental goodbye from Tennant and Lowe.
Behaviour begins with one of the Pet Shop Boys’ finest songs, “Being Boring,” perfectly setting a reflective, wistful mood for the album ahead. Released as an accompanying single, the track charted poorly, barely sliding into the 20 spot on the UK singles (their lowest in years). And while the two were largely known for their sophisticated dance music at the time, that’s not terribly surprising; however, considering the maturity and emotional honesty of the song, it is disappointing. Tennant has gone on record that “Being Boring” was inspired by a friend from his teenage years who had died of AIDS, but the finished song is far more than that. Over gentle synthesizers and the guitar work of longtime session musician/frequent collaborator J.J. Belle, Tennant encapsulates the gradual maturation of hopes and fears, of being a teenager terrified and excited all at once to being living and never “being boring.” Although the singer paraphrased a Zelda Fitzgerald quotation for the title, the songs stands as a true original, a defining song in the catalogue of the Pet Shop Boys.
And though “Being Boring” is both the introduction to and crowning achievement of Behaviour, it’s by no means the single bright spot. “This Must Be the Place I Waited Years to Leave” is a deeply sad look back on Tennant’s Catholic schoolboy years, as exemplified by the lines, “I’m listening to the words I thought I’d never hear again/ A litany of saints and other ordinary men/ Kneeling on the parquet, whatever has gone wrong?/ The fear and feeling hopelessness, I don’t want to belong.” Both legendary composer Angelo Badalamenti and Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr contributed to the track, which only adds to the intensity and grandeur of childhood ordeals being revisited. Other songs like “Nervously” and “Jealousy” (which originated in the same early run of songs as “West End Girls”) encapsulate the delicacy of juvenile emotion in as spare and simple arrangements as the Pet Shop Boys ever approached, Tennant pushing himself past his characteristic, semi-spoken delivery to truly sing each song. The only track which resembles the duo’s usual approach, “How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously?” is even more pointed than usual; a bitchy takedown of the shallow activism of pop stars, it’s direct and savage where the pair is often ambiguous.
Though Behaviour was critically praised, it has often been overshadowed by the sharp turnabout of the duo’s image and massive commercial success of their next album, Very (1993), their only release to top the UK Albums chart. It’s an overlooked gem in Tennant and Lowe’s catalogue, a brief moment of honesty and clarity in a career focused on ambiguity. Though the Pet Shop Boys will always be known first and foremost as the premier ironists of dance music, Behaviour shows that they have so much else to offer.