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Topical, With a Beat

Hate it when stars opine about issues? So do the Pet Shop Boys, but they still weigh in.

June 06, 2002|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Neil Tennant has no faith in celebrity. Not as a guiding force for humanity, or even as an example for the little people to follow. As the singing half of the Pet Shop Boys, Tennant has enjoyed his own kind of pop celebrity for nearly two decades, but he wouldn't want anyone to take that high esteem too seriously.

Celebrity culture, he insists, is not the answer, especially in an era when certain supermodels can protest the use of fur in one celebrated ad campaign, and then two years later appear on a catwalk in mink. "Celebrities are looked up to for their haircuts and their clothes, which is fine," says Tennant, 47. "I don't think we need to look up to anyone for issues. People are clever enough to work them out themselves."

That still hasn't prevented Tennant and partner Chris Lowe, 42, from drawing on the day's newspapers as much as personal experience for the Pet Shop Boys' new album, "Release." On the band's first U.S. tour since 1999, which includes a stop Friday at Universal Amphitheatre, mixing the romantic with the topical is a natural reflex for Tennant.

Which means the Pet Shop Boys can celebrate the comeback of love letters via the Internet on the lovesick "E-Mail," and then examine how the murders of Stephen Lawrence in the U.K. and Matthew Shepard in the U.S. drew belated attention to lingering racism and homophobia on "Birthday Boy."

"It makes us look into ourselves and about how they look at people," Tennant says of the deaths. "It's like Jesus dying for our sins."

The band has built a devoted following for its atmospheric dance music with a core of intelligence and melancholy. With his usual deadpan delivery, Tennant specializes in sometimes hurt, sometimes sneering love songs he's described as "bitter and twisted," with self-explanatory titles such as "You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk."

One new song likely to draw attention is "The Night I Fell in Love," which follows a young gay man to the concert of a homophobic rap artist clearly modeled on Eminem. The song, which Tennant says was inspired by the rapper's pointed, negative lyrics about homosexuality and his subsequent appearance with Elton John on the Grammy Awards, ends with the young man in bed with the rapper.

The Pet Shop Boys have yet to hear any reaction from Eminem. "When we played Detroit, Eminem was out of town--luckily," Tennant says with a laugh.

"Eminem says he's not homophobic--he's just playing a character representing the ugliness in America. And actually I think Eminem is doing that. He does it really well too, to be honest. I really like his records."

The new album was recorded at Tennant's house in northeast England between September 2000 and last November. Rather than return to the big dance beat of earlier records, keyboardist Lowe reached for a more organic sound that put the focus on the duo as songwriters. The sessions did lead to a handful of dance tracks, but they were relegated to B-sides of singles.

The final recording also owes something to the dynamic presence of guitarist Johnny Marr, formerly of the Smiths, Electronic and, briefly, the Pretenders. He has appeared before on Pet Shop Boys albums, but he plays on eight of the 10 tracks on "Release." (He won't be on the tour)

"Johnny is a great rock guitarist, but he's also a great pop guitarist, and he's a very melodic player, which really fits with what we do," Tennant says. "He's got this wonderful loose, rhythmic playing."

Last year, the Pet Shop Boys collaborated with playwright Jonathan Harvey on a stage musical, "Closer to Heaven," which played in London for six months. The show, likely to arrive in the U.S. in 2003, tells the story of an Irish boy who becomes immersed in London's fast-paced club scene.

In the musical and on the new album, electronics remain a key element in Pet Shop Boys music. While the duo has subtly updated its sound over the years, it has never overtly chased after the newest trends--drum-and-bass isn't in the repertoire. So even its most recent material fits comfortably beside the band's early recordings, including the 1985 signature hit "West End Girls."

"We don't really hop from genre to genre, like some people do," Tennant says. "With every album we've made, we had a strong idea for it. You should do what you feel, not what the latest trend is. It looks a bit shameless to do that. Not that there's anything wrong with being shameless."

*

The Pet Shop Boys play Friday at the Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, 7:30 p.m. $50. (818) 622-4440.

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