Sunday, 22 March 2009

Super use of superlatives

With tomorrow's release of Pet Shop Boys' new album Yes and all the hoopla surrounding it (outstanding contribution Brit award, all those "return to form" articles), I got to thinking about the use of superlatives and what it actually means.

One of the ways we will always categorise things will be through ranking. This is biggest, smallest, longest, shortest, smelliest, rudest, etc. In music it's no different. From the genre specific - the bassiest, synthiest, poppiest, etc. - to the commercial - "best selling album of all time" - it seems that superlatives are one of the only very few ways we have to talk about music.

What does this have to do with the new Pet Shop Boys album? As acts get to be of a certain age, every album they release will always be compared with their previous tour de force. For Pet Shop Boys, that example of artistic excellence is - in most people's books - 1993's Very. So every subsequent release has been using this album as the 10 at the top of the yardstick.

Music tastes may change, artists may age and release operas, musicals, novels or books of poetry that affect their lives and outlook on that life, but as music is a recorded snap shot of time, it all comes down how well the next release matches up to the previous best. Thus the circumstances in 1992 and 1993 surrounding the release of Very are very different from those surrounding Yes.

Does this bear any credence on the music itself? Probably not. Very is stripped of the surrounding music scene of 1993 and made to live on its own in the canon of Pet Shop Boys material. The remixes for the album's songs bear testament to the musical movement of the time however.

Likewise, Yes, bears all the hallmarks of pop music in 2008, with production and co-writing credits for the Xenomania production team, who also worked on the Pet Shop Boys-penned Girls Aloud single "The Loving Kind". Will Yes, in years to come feature as a window out on to the pop landscape of 2008, or echo the economic decline we are all feeling, or will it be held up as 7 or 8 on the yard stick of Pet Shop Boys releases, where the Holy Grail of Very's 10 remained just out of reach?

My guessing in the latter.

For the record, having listened to Yes a few times, I'd give it at around 7.5. That's below Fundamental but above Release, and not even in worrying distance of Very's 10.
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