Even before he perfected them, Neil Tennant respected pop singles enough to hate them. As a journalist at the beloved, now-shuttered British music magazine Smash Hits in the early ’80s, his reviews of the 7-inches were exacting. “We all make mistakes,” he wrote of Culture Club. Laurie Anderson? “I dozed off.” Amusingly, he suggested that the monster hook of Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round” was not catchy enough. Even if he wasn’t always spot on, Tennant was a fan who refused, in SH parlance, to be fobbed off with pap.
Tennant and his Pet Shop Boys bandmate Chris Lowe have made at least six great albums, but their music never met a more elegant repository than the single format. It suits the medium and the medium suits them. The duo is one of the few acts that still record B-sides—very good ones—despite these being an endangered species in modern Western pop. Go looking for a pop B-side now and you often won’t find much more than sped-up or slowed versions of the main event, but a single release in the pre-streaming era was, Tennant noted in 2020, “More like a manifesto: This is where we are now.”
Hence SMASH, a towering 55-song remastered singles collection from the pop art fabulists. As the Pet Shop Boys’ fourth greatest hits release, it expands on previous compilations—1991’s Discography, 2003’s PopArt, and 2010’s Ultimate—which are now truncated, dated, or both. SMASH’s rules of admission here are strict: only officially released singles are included here, and all versions are the 7″ or CD versions serviced to British radio, with a couple of asterisks. “New York City Boy” is switched out for its more economical US radio edit, and “How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously?” a 1991 double A-side in the UK with “Where the Streets Have No Name,” is not included. When asked about the omission recently, Lowe replied, “It doesn’t sound like a single.”
Sometimes the single versions here are superior to the album edits, 12-inch mixes, and other edits, but not always. It is also possible to imagine a more nuanced and inventively sequenced gloss of Pet Shop Boys’ career than this chronological survey. But there is particular value to this nerdy historicism given the poor cataloging of single edits by streaming services and that the pop single was Pet Shop Boys’ primary way of reaching the great record-buying public. This is what we heard: a murderer’s row of fabulous singles from one of the best pop duos to ever do it.
By the mid-’80s, Britain’s Satanic Mills had festered into a waste land of Thatcherite individualism. Underneath an urbane veneer was a vipers’ nest of greed and vice where the only thing that mattered was the cash in your pocket and who you’d got in your bed. All of which is to say that SMASH opens with “West End Girls.” The single, a US and UK No. 1 hit, is an irresistible stroke of pop genius enrobed in sophisti-jazz and flared synths, crowned by Tennant’s deadpan hook and a post-“Rapture” pseudo-rap, and it is still the most concise example of Tennant’s ability to see past facades while also admiring their gleam.
Tennant never wrote a song when it could be a one-act play; Lowe never settled for a synth when an orchestral hit could do. The singles of their imperial phase, which Tennant defines as spanning 1986-88, are among the cleverest to ever top the British charts: as packed as Heaven on a Friday, with any white space filled with cosmic whirrs, plainsong chorales, and heraldic horns. “It’s a Sin” mixes sacred chants with hair metal camp in a satire of anti-gay Catholic doctrine; “What Have I Done To Deserve This,” a gorgeously grown-up Dusty Springfield collaboration, teeters between resolve and despair in one of her best performances committed to record. Author Luke Turner was right when, writing about this period, he said that the Boys “smuggled queer kink into the living rooms of millions.” In “Rent,” Tennant relishes the flip-flopping power dynamic of a sugar relationship. “You dress me up, I’m your puppet,” he purrs. “You buy me things, I love it.” His kept narrator is no Baby Doll with daddy issues: They may even hold all the cards. And Tennant finds the tenderness within the arrangement. “I love you/You pay my rent” might be the greatest love story the Pet Shop Boys ever told.
Only a former altar boy could write this well about pride, envy, and lust—how others can awaken the worst of us—and do it without adjectives (Tennant abhors them). 1990’s operatic “Jealousy” features a paranoid narrator who unravels while waiting to hear their AWOL lover’s keys in the door. “Where did you go, who did you see, you didn’t call when you said you would,” Tennant sings bitterly, among sweeps of orchestration that are so pristine that they almost seem to mock his worry. Nine years later, after Tennant came out, Nightlife’s “I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Any More” says the quiet part loud: “Is he better than me? Was it your place or his?” And while their great B-side “The Truck Driver and His Mate” (not included here, of course) sexily imagines “man to man” diversions in a rest stop, 1999’s cosmic country ballad “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk,” details the knottier side of life with what Quentin Crisp called the “great dark man” and we would call trade. The title alone packs a kitchen sink drama’s worth of conflict into a sentence.
They never considered their music political. “I don’t really like the idea of people projecting themselves as important humanitarian figures, which is the tendency for rock personalities these days,” Tennant said in 1989, recounted in Chris Heath’s essential book on the Boys, Literally. Even so, you suspect that Tennant took more issue with virtue-signaling egos than artists who genuinely wanted to help. On the sublime “Being Boring,” a deeply personal elegy to Tennant’s friend who died from AIDS, the singer is both reflective and quietly furious that the plague kneecapped so many young queers’ ability to dream. SMASH’s segue from the introspection of 1990 Behaviour to the post-ecstasy rave of 1993’s Very tells a story about an LGBTQ+ community that needed to mourn as well as release. The thunderous gay dance anthem “I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing” captures it well, as Tennant sings “I feel like taking all my clothes off/Dancing to the Rite of Spring.” It’s about “falling in love and going bonkers,” says Tennant in the liner notes, but doing all that to Stravinsky’s barbaric ballet says something about queer joy as resistance, and finding courage to celebrate despite a backdrop of cruelty.
Two decades after Tennant seethed at dunderheaded critics on “Yesterday, When I Was Mad” (essentially Pet Shop Boys Versus America in a song), Super’s “The Pop Kids” cast their earlier life in a rosier light. Over time, infatuations and reveries take a back seat to finely drawn portraits of domesticity—not really the stuff of most pop songs, much less queer pop. 2002’s “Home and Dry,” with its wistful Johnny Marr guitar and synths that somehow evoke a sea shanty, lovingly details a hard-earned harbor at the end of a transatlantic schlep. The Xenomania-produced banger “Did You See Me Coming?” would be an inspired second dance song at a wedding, when the mushy stuff is done with and you just want to bop with your baby.
The album weakens a little in the last of its three discs, but there are remarkably few true duds. Tennant and Lowe’s recent singles can rival their famous hits, even if they don’t quite match them, particularly the brilliantly dotty Purcell flip “Love Is a Bourgeois Construct,” and the Casiotone reggaeton of “Twenty-Something” which, I promise, is a grower. Best of all is “Memory of the Future,” here in its majestic Stuart Price single mix, a dance between minor-key melancholy and a major-key plea for connection that also finds time to reference Proust.
“It’s in the music,” Tennant sings in “Vocal,” a sledgehammering rave track from 2013. “It’s in the song.” Wasn’t it always? On SMASH, Tennant and Lowe’s everyman haikus and walloping anthems assemble in mile-markers of an unparalleled career. Pop music will always be sacred, but finding connection in a dead-end world is also holy enough to be hymned. The 1997 Eurodance knockout “A Red Letter Day” showcases Tennant in the unlikely mode of a moony lovefool. “Like Christmas morning when you’re a kid / Admit you love me and you always did,” he sings, amid godly incantations and trance 808s. You can hear him beaming. It’s enough to touch your heart to hear Tennant, sin far enough in the rearview to wink at, so full of faith.