How did a pair of quiet, awkward Brits become a long-lasting, international pop institution? Watch and listen.
Pandemonium plays like a victory lap for Pet Shop Boys Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. And why not, after the 2009 they had? They kicked the year off by receiving the BRIT Award, the UK's still-respected equivalent of a Grammy, for Outstanding Contribution to Music. Then they followed up with Yes, their tenth studio album and their most commercially and critically successful release in over a decade, and the Pandemonium tour. Pet Shop Boys have reached the stage in their career where their large fanbase warrants a video souvenir of each tour. Indeed, Pandemonium follows 2007's Cubism, and features the same director, concert-video veteran David Barnard.
But Pandemonium looks, sounds, and feels like something more than a souvenir. Filmed in December 2009 at London's famous O2 Arena, it's more like a fairly concise, highly enjoyable distillation of how and why Pet Shop Boys became one of the great pop bands of their generation, or any for that matter. How they could only have been born of the 1980s, but lasted, even thrived, 20 years beyond them. Actually, maybe that's what's so special about Pandemonium. Not many pop acts can bask in the glory of the culture's coming full-circle to the point where their original context is hip once again without having been marginalized by that culture during the cycle. Tennant and Lowe stuck to their synthesizers and arch aesthetic through grunge, Britpop, and a hundred other trends. In the process, they embraced house, hip-hop, and Latin music in credible fashion. Though they've been out of the American mainstream for some time, they've never lost their international profile. That's what a singular vision and great songs can accomplish.
Pandemonium features plenty of eye-capturing visuals, as you might expect from a Pet Shop Boys concert film. The production design, by set-designer sensation Es Devlin, is a continuation of Pet Shop Boys' recent fascination with the abstract work of German artist Gerhard Richter. If that sounds a bit too highbrow, well, this is Pet Shop Boys, after all. Also, consider this: As the show opens to the irresistibly pulsing, melodic "Heart", the duo and their complement of dancers/backing vocalists are moving robotically and wearing canvas boxes over their heads. It's a scene right out of Flight of the Conchords, until you remember it was Pet Shop Boys who originally brought such tongue-in-cheek absurdism to the masses in the early '90s.
Much of the visuals that follow are a combination of 1980s style and 21st century technology. The dancers show off gravity-defying new wave hairdos and pop-dance, while giant projection screens tower above them. Pet Shop Boys have never been able to utilize the visual element of their shows completely, though. As with past tours, there's a lot going on, but it only occasionally makes a meaningful connection to what's happening in the music. The screens are vibrant, but also under-utilized, often simply displaying the music video for the current song. Surely, none of this mattered to the thousands in attendance, but home viewing invites a bit more scrutiny.
Pandemonium is really about Tennant and Lowe, anyway. Tennant, sounding in almost suspiciously good voice, will never be a traditional frontman. But he's a towering presence, and he has grown more relaxed, animated, and even interactive. He's clearly enjoying every minute, and it's infectious. You have to marvel at how Lowe, behind his usual bank of equipment, has maintained the exact same facial expression for 25 years running. He comes across, more than ever, as an impossibly cool uncle.
Providing a CD with a live set from an overwhelmingly electronic band may seem silly, but in this case it's definitely not. The songs are the real stars here, and the pacing and selection are nearly impeccable. So deep is Pet Shop Boys' trove of great songs that only a few tracks overlap with Cubism, and yet all the most-loved hits are here. The arrangements are sharp, beat-heavy, and respectful of the versions fans know so well. Each of the band's studio albums save 2002's Release is represented by at least one track, making Pandemonium an effective career overview. When strung together, sometimes in tasteful medley style, Tennant and Lowe's run of thoughtful, highly melodic, often affecting pop is very, very impressive. And it sounds great cranked up loud.
Pandemonium also illustrates that no pop institution is immune from making mistakes. The plodding "Building a Wall" is the only momentum-killer, and thankfully is dispatched early in the set. And here's a lesson only Pet Shop Boys could teach: covering the Village People, as on "Go West", leads to euphoric, emotionally resonant camp, while imitating the Village People, via "New York City Boy", leads to campy self-parody. And, really, aren't Tennant and Lowe above covering Coldplay?
These minor shortcomings are all part of the Pet Shop Boys experience, and they don't stop Pandemonium from being a triumph. The bonus footage of the Boys' brilliant BRITS performance provides the punctuation. Champagne toast, anyone?