What is it about gay English synthpop duos from the ’80s? They have style. They have relevance. They have staying power. They have a musician who is content to hide behind a computer during live shows while the singer commands the stage. Erasure. Pet Shop Boys. Hardly interchangeable acts — where Erasure’s activism generally remains within the gay rights arena, Pet Shop Boys will often delve into politics and cultural discussions further abroad — but certainly cut from a similar cloth. And the listening public is better for still having both of them around.
Despite Andy Bell’s barely containable persona and larger-than-life lyrical delivery, Erasure, thanks to Vince Clarke’s electronic beats, still produces an intimate sound ideal for smaller venues. Pet Shop Boys, on the other hand, are able to fill an arena with Chris Lowe’s computer wizardry and Neil Tennant’s powerful release. Case in point: Cubism, a 25-plus song live DVD capturing the Boys in support of the Fundamental release, and recorded 14 November 2006 at Auditorio Nacional in Mexico City. The 9,700-seat venue throbs with life for nearly two hours in this beautiful widescreen, DTS presentation.
While it would be difficult for any concert DVD audio commentary to match the gold standard set by Talking Heads and Jonathan Demme on Stop Making Sense, Tennant, Lowe, and director David Barnard do an admirable job keeping both the insights and information engaging on Cubism. Also included in the package is “Pet Shop Boys in Mexico”, which is a unique nine-minute film of the Boys discussing what they like about Mexico and Mexico City over some beautiful and arty photos. Interspersed between Tennant and Lowe’s comments are Mexico City fans talking about their fascination with the band, the whole affair in voice-over. The final extra is a photo gallery montage set to a two-and-a-half-minute excerpt of “Integral”.
Cubism, as a concept, visually permeates the show itself. The stage is dominated by a giant cube from which six performers emerge: a pair of dancers, a pair of backup singers, and Tennant and Lowe. All six performers are dressed identically for the first cluster of songs, presenting the audience with, literally, PSB3. As the show progresses, all the performers do eventually go through various wardrobe changes, and the cube set piece is moved into various positions, ultimately resulting in three full-size cubes.
I have a general rule about groups with the tenure and rich back-catalog of an Erasure or Pet Shop Boys: They should never play more than four songs off any new releases on the supporting tour, except in the case of stellar offerings like Fundamental — arguably a return-to-form after 2002’s lackluster guitar-driven Release. This show, split into a stunning 14-song first half, a spotty nine-song second half, and a solid three-song encore, features eight cuts from Fundamental. Of those first 14 songs, only two fall short, and ironically neither are off the new release: Actually‘s “Rent” and Very‘s “Dreaming of the Queen”. Otherwise, the consistency of the pre-intermission song-selection and performance is above reproach.
The unlikely show-opener and new tracks like “Psychological” and “I’m with Stupid” mix seamlessly with PSB classics like “Left to My Own Devices” and “Suburbia”. Enhancing the show is the song order itself, where the spelling of “M-I-N-I-M-A-L” flows perfectly into “S-H-O-P-P-I-N-G”, blending new and old. The trio of songs closing the first half are simply stunning: “Heart”, which, as revealed by Tennant on the commentary track, hasn’t been played live in almost 20 years, “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)”, and “Integral”. The last tune is the Boys’ anti-authoritarian song that charges and pulses with vitality and immediacy: “If you’ve done nothing, you’ve got nothing to fear / If you’ve something to hide, you shouldn’t even be here”.
When the Boys return after Sir Ian McKellen informs the crowd of the 20 minute intermission, the energy level rarely reaches the consistent peaks previously achieved (although the night-specific intermission problems noted on the commentary track arguably might have had something to do with the momentum shift). Regardless, Tennant looks like he’s genuinely having fun during “Domino Dancing”, and the back-to-back duo of covers sparkle. “Always on My Mind” is phenomenal, trumping the studio version and pulling the crowd back into the show. And then… enter the gold lamé cowboy and the electro-country stomp interpretation of the U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name”. Unfortunately, the proper show falls apart, ending on a rote version of “West End Girls” and “The Sodom and Gomorrah Show”. The performance of the former on Dancing with the Stars was far superior, and the latter is dressed up in the Village People’s gay army fatigues and paraded around as an anthem. It doesn’t work on paper, and it doesn’t work in execution, coming off like something out of a John Waters’ musical. A terrible end to the main set.
The encore is thoroughly redeeming. Tennant lets the backup singers, including PSB regular Sylvia Mason-James, handle “So Hard” before the Boys blow the crowd away with “It’s a Sin”. Like “Integral” 45 minutes earlier, it’s all high-energy and hard-pounding beats. This is how you end a show. And when “It’s a Sin” finished I was completely out of breath, and “Go West” was the perfect cool-down to take the show out. The best compliment I can give the film — beyond the deserving technical praise — is that when I finished watching Cubism, I felt like I’d actually been to a Pet Shop Boys concert.