I have been known to enjoy, throughout the last eight or so years, flipping through shelves, stacks and bins of used CDs in search of the increasingly rare album I don't already have. Do this enough, and you start to see the same discs pop up again and again. (I run into Savage Garden's first album quite a lot — I'll buy it one of these times, but I'm convinced that its price will, on current trend, soon reach negative numbers.) The most distinctive to my eyes has been the Pet Shop Boys' Very, with its bright orange, entirely opaque case and LEGO-textured front face. I finally broke down and bought it.
Not that I was going in blind. I was sort of familiar with the Boys' body of work, but not enough to, you know, name more than two of their titles. When I found that an art TA of Madelaine's — who's actually sitting right across the coffee shop from me as I type — strongly reminded me of lead singer Neil Tennant, I thought to myself, "Hey, the Pet Shop Boys. They use synthesizers. They make pop. They've stood the test of time. Aren't they a band I should like?" This notion intersected my desperation for some new music.
So it turns out I do like the Pet Shop Boys, not just for their music — which is often pop at its most well-made — but for the fact that style and aesthetics are integral components not just of their appearance, their videos and their album covers, but of they very entity they comprise. "The style of the Pet Shop Boys" is not a separate concept from "the Pet Shop boys" in the way that, say, "the style of the Dave Matthews Band" is from "the Dave Matthews Band." The Pet Shop Boys are their aesthetics; take the aesthetics away, and you pull a load-bearing block from the band's Jenga tower. Quoth Wikipedia:
I'm going to have to snag that book.
So you've probably gathered that I have never complained of any artist or band that they've forgotten that "it used to be about the music." While the music is a critical component of a musician's career — I'm not enough of a contrarian to refute that — it's but one of many. It's the tracks you lay down, but it's also the clothes you wear, the attitude you project, the character you become, the ideas you embody, the dynamic you have with your fellow musicians, the dynamic you have with your fans, the visual choices you make, the positional choices you make. The Pet Shop Boys have internalized this. The only living recording artist to have arguably done it better is Madonna, and I often regret that I'm a too much of a heterosexual male to fully enjoy her. (I doubt any straight man can find a point of entry — har, har — into Madonna any more; she doesn't even have any ogle value, at least no ogle value without a scary edge.) Not that the Pet Shop Boys are exactly the straightest act around; Very has been called the band's "coming-out album" due to its slightly more overt gay content and Tennant's emergence from the public closet around the time of its release. (And keyboard player Chris Lowe tends to muse, when he talks at all, about how there's only one true sexual orientation.)
That's all to the good, since I happen to think that the disc's gayest moments — such as the opener "Can You Forgive Her?", where Tennant asks a guy if he'll accept his girlfriend's ridicule of his homosexual tendencies — are its best. That they can produce sharp, clever songs without sacrificing an iota of production value nearly brings me over to the Pet Shop Boys' side by itself; it's the same reason I'm such a Steely Dan fan. Too often, outfits that put work into the verbal content of their songs act as if that gets them a free ride on, y'know sounding good. And don't get me started on the whole "lo-fi" movement.