Review Summary: Pet Shop Boys get all sentimental.
It’s 1990, and the trajectory of synthpop had undergone many great changes, the main one being that it had dissolved. The fashion of big, bouncy, keyboard-led tunes had passed. Listeners and artists were looking for newer sounds, and evident of the evolutionary nature of pop music, if you didn’t keep up…well, you were simply left behind.
Enter Pet Shop Boys, a duo who had built a successful career on glistening synthpop, and were until recently the genre’s most popular champions. Although they had already experienced a decline in success, it wasn’t too sharp a decline. Their previous album Introspective scored a few top 10 hits, but Pet Shop Boys were never for modesty. They seemed rather offended and appalled by the utter failure of not having produced a number 1 hit in over a year. Then, Depeche Mode’s Violator dropped, and although it wasn’t quite a #1, by Neil Tennant’s and Chris Lowe’s own admissions, it had changed the game.
Pet Shop Boys, caught among changing tides had a decision to make: How are two guys with synthesizers going to innovate themselves to stay relevant? Tennant and Lowe have always been staunch traditionalists, so their answer, it seems, was to go analogue and add some balladry which would certainly distance themselves from their dance past in favor of trying to establish more musical credibility. Indeed, there is an obvious change of direction and tone between Behaviour and earlier works. Behaviour employs reflective, smoother tones as the lyrics take on more wistful subjects. The problem is that the change feels forced and unnatural, and the results mostly come off as boring and uninspired.
The album starts strongly but unconventionally. Being Boring and This Must Be the Place I’ve Waited Years to Leave are some of the strongest songs Pet Shop Boys have to their name. Being Boring is a delightful song that reminisces on the brash nature of youth in comparison to finding contentment as time passes. It sports a fantastic melody and a bassline that would fit well among their disco-worshiping back catalogue. It’s a bit too awash in smooth synths and small drums to be a club filler, but the Boys weren’t really aiming for that at the time. This Must Be the Place I’ve Waited Years to Leave continues in a similar aesthetic, but it’s certainly a bit moodier. It’s actually as close as Pet Shop Boys got to producing a Depeche Mode song and sounds like DM’s 1993 hit Walking in My Shoes without the bombastic flair provided by Alan Wilder.
Unfortunately, that’s probably the end of the good news regarding Behaviour. The next song To Face the Truth recalls the poorer aspects of synthetic balladry at the time. How Can You Expect to be Taken Seriously attempts to inject energy back into the sequence, but as it’s supposed to be a cutting indictment of a deluded, hypocritical popstar, it comes off rather tame. That quality carries over to the rest of the album where you find that despite Pet Shop Boys’s attempts to branch out from their former selves, they are still met by frustrating limitations. Neil Tennant’s melodies are a bit too saccharine and soppy at times, and his thin voice is never properly expressive but kept to a light, reserved croon. Sure, that was always his style, but the music around him was colourful enough to carry him and propel the act to the top of the pop world. The juxtaposition of his detatched vocals and his grandiose, busy surroundings was fascinating. Here, the arrangements have lost their excitement and suffer from the same subdued nature, dragging with it much of the allure of the Pet Shop Boys.
What remains intact are Neil Tennant’s erudite lyrics, here describing tremors in relationships or reflecting on discordant pasts. Sonically, lead single So Hard and The End of The World come the closest to matching Pet Shop Boys’s previous style, yet they still maintain the musicality incorporated throughout all the songs here. These tracks provide the successful blend of what works for the band and the innovation they wanted to pursue. Had the album been full of these combinations along with more of the great, emotional songcraft that forms the first two songs, it would have been thoroughly enjoyable, but as it stands, Behaviour is an experiment with some triumphs and some failures. It’s a textbook transitional album and a cornerstone in the Pet Shop Boys discography. Fascinating in that regard, it’s still a bit of a plodding listen.