Animal Instincts

The Pet Shop Boys maintain their pop pedigree with a new album and tour.

Nightlife, though largely electronically based, finds Tennant and Lowe moving beyond formulaic dance and pop approaches to incorporate a wider array of instrumentation and sound. They worked with three different producers on the record, including "Ray of Light" producer Craig Armstrong. "The goal was to mix electronic music with strings -- not in a bombastic way, but in a sonic way, to achieve denser sound," Tennant says. The album features such songs as "You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk" and "Vampires," and Tennant says that "basically, all of the themes have to do with the nightlife. 'Vampires' is about drugs and how they destroy people's relationships and lives and cause them to stay up all night." It's a provocative platter, at times full of lyrical imagery that makes precious few judgments about the subjects broached. Other times it is simple, narrative fun, as is the case with "New York City Boy," the first single released from the album. The video for the song is a tableau chronicling the last half-century of getting one's groove on in the Big Apple. It follows a surreal day in the life of a Nineties teen who has a turntable and electric guitar in his bedroom. The chap undergoes a musical jaunt through the city, passing Eighties-era breakdancers and grooving Seventies hipsters sporting Afros like characters straight out of Shaft. The images are backed by Tennant singing, "The street is amazing/The hoochies are real/Look how they holler out the latest deal." The bedazzled boy then journeys into the glitzy underground of Studio 54, where he and a Warhol look-alike observe various androgynous hipsters busting their respective moves to the chorus, an emphatic, Village People-esque declaration: "You're a New York City boy/You'll never have a bored day." All of this is depicted for the viewer through crotch-centric camera angles and, for the listener, through music that is a specimen of unabashed camp.

According to Tennant, Nightlife is a representative sample of the band's steady progression that still retains those elements that have endeared it to longtime fans. "Our sound gradually developed," he says, "and did so, I think, with integrity. We didn't just suddenly release a reggae album or a German beat album or something like that. I think it's something like the way the Beatles gradually developed, whereas the Rolling Stones suddenly made a psychedelic album because everyone else was making psychedelic albums." The band's playful performance ethic has also grown exponentially over the years and has roots in what Tennant describes simply as a prolonged artistic adolescence. "We believe in ignoring the fact that we are growing old," Tennant said. "We've always been immature. I think we stay young because we have a desire to keep making records and shows, and there are always so many new things you can do."

And, oh, the things they can do. The Pet Shop Boys and a production team spent more than a year designing sets and general atmospherics for the current tour, enlisting the help of world-renown architect Zaha Hadid to design an elaborate set for the show. Among other honors, Hadid has held visiting professorships at Harvard and Columbia Universities and won the competition for the design of the Cardiff Bay Opera House in Wales in 1994. ("She won the competition," Tennant says, "but they didn't build it, because they thought it was too weird. That was a mistake, really, because I think it would have put Cardiff on the map.") "We had the idea for the set to be adapted to fit different sizes of venues, because we were going to be playing both clubs and arenas. We liked the way Zaha Hadid's buildings looked -- one unusual aspect of them is that they have few right angles.

Pop artists for the ethical treatment of animals: the Pet Shop Boys.
Pop artists for the ethical treatment of animals: the Pet Shop Boys.

"We also have the lighting man from Pink Floyd working for us, as well as five other singers, a percussionist and another keyboardist. We wanted to achieve a show that was not theatrical but very visual."

And, of course, full of many fabulous outfits.

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