Monday, 10 August 2009

1987 Pet Shop Boys: It's A Sin

There has always been an element of the theatrical about the Pet Shop Boys, a larger than life approach that embraces performance art in a way that sometimes makes the whole spectacle of faux opera and big pointy hats more important than the actual song. Opening with a sampled NASA countdown and building from that blast off, 'It's A Sin' is theatre personified and makes 'Bohemian Rhapsody' sound like a one track field recording. A veritable Wailing Wall of sound, 'It's A Sin' takes in samples from a Latin mass, a backing choir recorded at Westminster Cathedral and various sturm und drang orchestral stabs moulded to a tune that loosely shadows Cat Stevens' 'Wild World' (come on Neil, don't deny it) before spiralling out into a super nova explosion of Neil Tennant reciting a straight faced confession to God himself. In Latin.

This is DRAMA with the caps lock on rather than the campy disco excesses of their usual output and it muscles along like a boxer working a heavybag, pummelling it into submission safe in the knowledge that it's not going to hit back - 'It's A Sin' is not background music. A song so in your face demands your full attention, though it's the attention reserved for a hated and feared schoolteacher rather than one based on genuine respect or interest.
It's loud and it's brash, but it's also dense and impenetrable, a thick overblown chunk of solemnity that barely lets in any light, let alone room for any excitement to breathe.

And the DRAMA is carried over into a set of lyrics that don't so much play dead as lumber around with the awkwardness of a George Romero zombie looking for fresh brains. Apparently a reminiscence of Tennant's unhappy Catholic school upbringing in Newcastle, he claims to have written the lyrics in one fifteen minute burst. Frankly, it shows:

"At school they taught me how to be

So pure in thought and word and deed
They didn't quite succeed"

Whilst the Pet Shop Boys normally attack whatever's on their radar with a raised eyebrow of irony or knowing, self mocking flights of self deprecation, 'It's A Sin' is played with a completely straight bat - they mean it man. Unfortunately, this attempt at a synthpop 'À la recherche du temps perdu' serves only to emphasise the fact that Tennant is no Proust, and what's meant to be taken as a purging of the soul is rendered as the overly earnest scribblings of the lamest sixth form poet having a bad day after Sarah from 6B knocked him back in the common room:

"For everything I long to do

No matter when or where or who
Has one thing in common, too
It's a sin

Everything I've ever done
Everything I ever do
Every place I've ever been
Everywhere I'm going to
It's a sin"

It's begging an adolescent howl of '
It's not fair!!!' and the full stop slam of a bedroom door. More tantrum than DRAMA, the natural reaction is to give him a shake and tell him to pull himself together, and that been/sin rhyme is about as comfortable as kneeling on a marble, especially when sung in Tennant's trademark nasally whine.

'It's A Sin' comes ready loaded with expectation, an aura of musical 'event' sincerity that almost dares anyone not to like it. But I don't. I know it was a huge worldwide success and remains one of Pet Shop Boys' best loved songs so I may be in the minority on this one, but tough. I don't like it. Had the Boys kept their tongue in their cheek or injected an element of playfulness into this then it would have sat far better with me. But they didn't, and the overbearing seriousness of it all that proves its undoing. 'It's A Sin' is pretentious as hell, but it's pretentious in an annoying, self pitying way that tries to turn an unhappy childhood into a Wagnerian opera cycle but ends up as so much ado about nothing and as enjoyable as any of Eddie Izzard's film roles where he plays it straight.

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