Whenever a Pet Shop Boys album has more than one word in its title, they are combining their music with another medium.
Closer to Heaven was their stab at music theater and Battleship Potemkin was obviously an accompaniment to the Russian classic silent film. Now, with The Most Incredible Thing, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have turned to scoring a ballet based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale of the same name. The idea apparently sprung from Tennant, Lowe, and ballet artist Ivan Putrov all arriving at the notion that it would be neat to have the synth-pop duo write some original music for a dance. Things came together over the course of the next four years as Tennant and Lowe solicited the help of Sven Helbig for writing orchestrations, the Wroclaw Score Orchestra for performance, and Dominic Wheeler for conducting.
Unlike other pop musicians who stupefyingly find themselves waste deep in an endeavor like composing instrumental music complete with orchestrations and all that, the Pet Shop Boys don’t fall into the trap of looking like the classroom’s great floundering big shot. They recognize their inherent strengths and build some pretty compelling sounds around them. They also know how to temper their experimental side and when to just back off and let things happen. And they also know that the hybrid approach of synthesizers and orchestra is just the right fit for them. An exclusive style in either direction could threaten to make the show’s music either silly or boring. Thanks to the good taste of the Pet Shop Boys, The Most Incredible Thing is neither.
If you have never heard of this tale, don’t feel bad. Neither had I until this double package arrived. The Most Incredible Thing is about a king who offers his daughter’s hand in marriage to anyone who could create “the most incredible thing.” The ballet’s modern narrative follows the story’s princess, an artist named Leo who would eventually win the competition, and an army officer named Karl who proves to be intimidating competition to Leo due to his physical condition. The first act introduces these characters and the idea behind the king’s competition. The contest is already underway by the beginning of act two as a tepid Leo unveils a clock that takes the spectators through a spiritual timeline/journey. Things go south when a jealous Karl and his gang surround Leo and destroy his clock. Act three turns the tide of the story as the spirit of Leo’s clock crashes the wedding between Karl and the princess. Karl somehow vanishes and the princess ends up marrying the right guy. Everyone is happy and no one is jealous. According to Andersen, that is “the most incredible thing.”
As a listening experience, The Most Incredible Thing is actually kind of fun. The classical shading definitely brings to mind the spirit of, if not necessarily the formula and theory behind, old masters like Tchaikovsky spinning romantic yarn to comfort-food fairy tales. Conversely, the synth-pop elements of the ballet can send Pet Shop Boys fans on a memory scavenger hunt, trying to match a movement of the ballet with a pop song from the duo’s past. With so many people involved, it’s hard to tell who should get praise for what, exactly. But somewhere between Tennant and Lowe’s writing and Helbig’s arrangements, there are some subtlety interesting things going on here. Harmonic resolutions take the paths less taken and off-color vamps go the extra yard in establishing drama and good old fashioned tension.
It’s doubtful that anyone will be humming the themes of The Most Incredible Thing in the future the way people can hum The Nutcracker today. But Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe sure do know their stuff. Their lasting legacy may lie in their perfection of the art of the pop song, but they also write a mean score. Plus, it’s far more satisfying than 2009’s Yes.