Album Review: Pet Shop Boys - Behaviour

“It’s about the problem of being monogamous; wanting to be in a loving and monogamous relationship but being tempted away from it.” In a 1990 interview regarding their latest single So Hard, Neil Tennant just happened to fall on the best description of their latest album in the process.

1988 saw the release of Introspective, their ode to the excess of dance music, a last hurrah, a complete submersion in the genre. Introspective was two steps forward from the stiff pop of Actually. Behaviour however, was two steps forward and about twenty backwards. Their monogamy with dance music was broken, shattered even. But Behaviour just happens to be the best album Pet Shop Boys released. There must be a reason people have affairs and, figuratively speaking, Behaviour is an excellent example of one done successfully.

Behaviour sees their pop tendencies crystallise into something more beautiful. The tempos slow down to a crawl and ballads come to dominate. Being Boring, the first track embodies the albums core message in just under seven minutes. Set at different periods in time but focusing on the central theme of AIDs, Tennant (lead singer and lyricist), laments the loss of friends and the fulfilment of life in the wake of such loss, the hole that it leaves and the covering up of that hole. It’s at once heart-breaking and empowering. The whole record continues in this vogue, each song an epitaph to the melancholy that life brings. Tennant’s lyrics never got better than the ones present on Behaviour. Whether he was injecting his biting wit as on How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously?, mythologizing the 1918 revolution in Germany as a love letter as on My October Symphony, or somehow getting the word “waiteth” into a single as on This Must Be the Place I Waited Years To Leave.

Behaviour however, is not just a pop masterpiece. The album is a landmark in its approach to sexuality. It belongs in the same league as Prince’s Dirty Mind and Björk’s Homogenic in regards to queer culture.
– Kieran Baddeley

The latter of these is also the record’s darkest point. The themes Tennant explores breach into the Catholic church and Tennant’s place as a gay man in its ideology. The music, courtesy of Chris Lowe, the other half of Pet Shop Boys, is befittingly dramatic, hair raising and over the top with every orchestral stir. He creates the best programming of his career: the playful guitar accents that open the album, the bubbling synths of To Tell the Truth, the mournful piano on Only the Wind. In fact, the whole album works due to Lowe and producer Harold Faltermeyer’s work in the studio. The album is drenched in sticky warmth that grounds it and makes it all the more palatable without dulling its excitement (something they attempted again with 2012’s Elysium but to no avail.) It’s an album that sounds out of place in the 90s. Perhaps if we imagine another decade between the 80s and 90s – it goes there.

Behaviour however, is not just a pop masterpiece. The album is a landmark in its approach to sexuality. It belongs in the same league as Prince’s Dirty Mind and Björk’s Homogenic in regards to queer culture. It’s timid, hesitant at first but it soon comes to embody everything that gay iconography had done in the past two decades. It’s strident, confident, timid and naïve all at the same time. Nervously, perhaps the first openly gay song Tennant wrote is the record’s centrepiece. It’s wonderfully tentative in its description of courting but ultimately, with every horn blast from Lowe, Tennant becomes more and more confident in the situation. It’s tantalising. While they would embrace this more overtly on the 1993 album Very, Behaviour is where all the pieces fit together to form a manifesto for subtlety in a situation that, even in the 90s was still somehow taboo.

So, with their marriage to dance music annulled, and monogamy out of the window, where does that place Behaviour? Somehow closer to the pop of Please, their debut album, yet so far away as to separate it entirely, Behaviour is a pop record in every sense, except it is so much more than that. It is a concept album about sexuality, loss, life, failure, success, indulgence and microcosms. It was a landmark record. It still is.