As their only album with Atlantic, Bilingual is perhaps the Pet Shop Boys’ least known of all their releases. It is also where they started dominating the dance charts. The first track, “Discoteca” has a hook that’s sung in Spanish, “Hay una discoteca por acgui.” It’s just the first of many surprises and huge risks taken by the British duo that first made it big in America with the #1 hit “West End Girls” ten years earlier.
True, Bilingual didn’t exactly impress Atlantic execs with its sales performance (dumping them from their roster in the process), but it did pique the interest of hardcore fans and club D.J.’s. Even their music videos seemed to come of age with the singles that were eventually released, namely “Before,” “Single Bilingual,” “A Red Letter Day” (all directed by Howard Greenhalgh), and best of all, “Se a Vida é (That’s The Way Life Is),” a glowing clip depicting the joys of childhood and summer, directed by famed photographer Bruce Weber.
Never afraid to try their hand at different musical genres, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe leave their own electronic stamp on each one, never letting us forget who they are. With a wink and a wry half-smile, Neil tries hip-hop on for size on “Electricity,” though the repetitive reference to Disco Tex and the Sex-O-Lettes is an odd choice. Caribbean rhythms and the sound of a hundred snare drums abound throughout Bilingual, lending a sunny air to the proceedings. The yellow cover design couldn’t be more appropriate.
Whether they are emphatic on the dance cuts or laidback on the slower ones, Pet Shop Boys clearly intended on making a clean break from their past with this record. The three albums that followed it up: the even more upbeat Nightlife (1999), the failed ballad experiment Release (2002), and the grab bag of Fundamental (2005) each struggled with a level of consistency, not to mention a distinct lack of memorable material. Yet on this disc and their latest effort, simply entitled Yes, everything sounds fresh and solid.
Cohesive and very pleasant to the ear, Bilingual ranks right up there with their best works from the ‘80s and early ‘90s, especially their 1986 debut Please and the out-and-proud Very from 1993. The two #1 club play hits “Before” and “To Step Aside” can be found on this album, as well as two other tracks that have only gotten better with age, the dramatic “Up Against It” and “The Survivors,” a poignant anthem for long-term survivors of HIV. Speaking of survivors, Pet Shop Boys may not have earned much more than cult status here in the U.S., but they certainly have outlasted many of their other pop contemporaries. An album this good is proof positive that with the Pet Shop Boys, “It Always Comes As A Surprise.” Give them a chance, America. I promise you won’t be sorry you did.