Chances are, if you’re someone who doesn’t buy live albums, you’ll have your view of them confounded by Concrete. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe – with a little help from the BBC Concert Orchestra, Rufus Wainwright, Frances Barber and Robbie Williams – have redefined what “live album” means.
Recorded at London’s Mermaid Theatre for Radio 2 in May 2006, Concrete offers grandiose orchestral arrangements not just of songs from current studio album Fundamental but many of the duo’s most memorable hits from their quarter-century spanning career too. The album’s most striking characteristic is evident at the close of the first track. Tennant, already comfortable with the dual role of lyricist and vocalist, becomes narrator of his own career too with a range of plummy vignettes about each of the songs.
What’s also clear from hearing this record is that to dismiss Pet Shop Boys merely as an ’80s electropop duo would be to give them scant justice. Concrete feels like a contemporary classical cultural study, and only partly because of the BBCCO’s presence. Sally Bradshaw joins the fray for a spot of opera diva vocals on Left To My Own Devices that’s more coliseum gladiatorial soundtrack than hit, and Frances Barber is on hand to sing Friendly Fire later on. Battleship Potemkin soundtrack number After All reminds us of the Boys’ sustained interest in art in all its forms, and of their Trafalgar Square showcase of the record in 2004.
Better still is Rufus Wainwright’s contribution. The McGarrigle scion nails Casanova In Hell as though it were his own song, vastly improving on the original, from Fundamental. His mournful and instantly recognisable voice injects a sense of regret to a song which, when sung by Tennant, felt devoid of passion. Tennant works well as detached narrator – with Wainwright, the story of the Venetian’s demise comes alive. Later, on the Boys’ first song, Jealousy, Robbie Williams impressively guests.
But with or without guest stars, Concrete demonstrates the Boys’ most recent material, in songwriting terms, is in the same league as their best known music. Integral, the highlight of Fundamental, is little short of sensational here with an impassioned orchestra perfectly aligned with Lowe’s technical gizmo wizardry.
Oldies like Rent, It’s A Sin and West End Girls round out a collection that never feels too long or superfluous, and goes some way to installing Tennant and Lowe as national treasures. And if live albums are not your thing, Concrete could prove the exception to the rule.