Confirms that Tennant and Lowe have always been songwriters first and pop stars second.
Tom Hocknell 2012-02-06
While Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe record their 11th album in LA, Format, a second collection of B sides, arrives as a sequel to 1995’s Alternative. Pet Shop Boys played a vital role in establishing the (once) standard of original, non-album flipsides with West End Girls, and continue to deliver all-new material to back their single releases. And it is here, relieved of the pressure to write hits or adhere to any album themes, that they regularly stretch their experimental wings.
Format picks up in 1996, around the release of the unfairly maligned Bilingual album. From this period come Betrayed, which flirts with drum and bass, and The Boy Who Couldn't Keep His Clothes On, capitalising on Danny Tenaglia’s Miami Latino groove with its ad-libbed banji rap. These cuts perfectly showcase Pet Shop Boys’ ability to shine when leaving the script behind.
Ironically, some of the strongest tracks on this double-disc release are from a time in the band’s career relatively regarded as weak: the B sides from around 2002’s semi-acoustic Release could have made that good album a great one. The sublime, autumnal electro of Always and Between Two Islands are amongst their finest songs, while how the flipside to 2004’s Flamboyant, the celebratory wig-out I Didn't Get Where I Am Today (with Johnny Marr clearly enjoying himself on guitar), wasn't a single in its own right is unfathomable.
Characteristic of Format is Lowe’s occasional appearance as vocalist, and there’s something indescribably cool about his deadpan rapping of Pet Shop Boys song titles (Shopping, Rent, Being Boring…) on their cover of My Robot Friend’s We’re the Pet Shop Boys. He also appears on the lesser-known Lies, with its punchy, uplifting defiance to a cheating lover.
At 38 tracks, not everything on Format is essential. Transparent is a sketch, albeit one lesser bands might be proud of, and Nightlife’s Bee Gees disco is pleasant enough. But Silver Age and Screaming are best left forgotten, and Party Song is a mistake from the title down.
Highlights are plentiful, however. The Ghost of Myself’s brooding modern R&B, via Britney Spears, finds Tennant ruing his younger self over a pounding piano; and the swooping atmosphere of Bright Young Things is accompanied by some great lines: “In Berkeley Square the bright young things / Are flying on chemical wings / Intent on their one-last-flings.” 2006’s The Resurrectionist echoes their imperial period of the 1980s, and B sides from the (most) recent Yes album campaign – such as Up and Down’s effortless pop, and the majestic After the Event – confirms that Tennant and Lowe have always been songwriters first and pop stars second.