Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 5, 2007)
Such is my love of live music that I’ve seen Pet Shop Boys in concert twice – even though I don’t like them. However, my friend Kevin adores them, and his fascination piqued my interest. When I spent 10 days in England back in December 1999, I had a free night so I saw PSB at the Manchester Arena, and I also took Kevin to see them at a local show in DC during October 2006.
Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the duo’s music, I thought I’d enjoy these shows simply because I like strong visual performances. PSB have a reputation for elaborate concerts so I thought I’d dig the concerts. Alas, I found both to be less than enthralling. The 2005 show was more fun since the 1999 concert was pretty stripped down, but both left me fairly cold.
Nonetheless, I thought I’d give PSB another shot via a DVD called Cubism In Concert. Shot on November 14, 2006 in Mexico City, the 25-song performance offers tunes from across the duo’s long career, though 2006’s Fundamental dominates the set. From that release, we get “God Willing”, “Psychological”, “I’m With Stupid”, “Minimal”, “Integral”, “Numb” and “The Sodom and Gomorrah Show”.
The rest of the tracks span the years. Heading back to their 1986 debut Please, we find “West End Girls”, “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money” and “Suburbia”, while 1987’s Actually brings us “Shopping”, “Rent”, “Heart” and “It’s a Sin”. Off of 1988’s Introspective we discover “Left to My Own Devices”, “Always on My Mind” and “Domino Dancing”, and from 1990’s Behaviour we get “So Hard”. “Where the Streets Have No Name”/”Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” accompanied the single for “How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously? off of Behavior. “Can You Forgive Her?”, “Go West” and “Dreaming of the Queen” come from 1993’s Very, while "Se a vida é (That's the Way Life Is)" stems from 1996’s Bilingual. The show omits anything from 1999’s Nightlife but throws in “Home and Dry” off of 2002’s Release and “Flamboyant” from 2003’s compilation called PopArt: The Hits.
That varied setlist should make fans happy, and I’d bet that longtime partisans will also get a lot of satisfaction from the show as a whole. Does it work for those of us without as much interest in PSB? Yeah, at least on occasion. This is an enjoyable but inconsistent show.
Cubism presents the same performance I saw a few weeks earlier in DC, and it’s not a concert that allows space for spontaneity. Main vocalist Neil Tennant is the focus of the show. Keyboardist – and sole musician, really – Chris Lowe just stands in front of his set all night, so he doesn’t add anything to the visual side of the performance. Tennant modifies some of his between-song patter to be in Spanish, but otherwise this is a pretty pre-set concert.
Not that I will criticize an act just because they don’t change things every night. After all, I love Madonna’s live shows, and they’re essentially the same on each evening of the tour. However, Madonna is about a million times more engaging as a live performer, so Tennant can’t compare. PSB add a few singers/dancers, and they help bring some spice to the stage, but don’t expect a tremendously involving visual show.
Nonetheless, Cubism has enough happening to keep the viewer interested. It’s not a killer piece, and it falls short of PSB’s more ambitious shows from the past. However, it’s still a fairly well-staged piece.
As I see it, though, two problems emerge. For one, the setlist really drags when it goes with new material. Often fans feel that way, as they’d rather hear the golden oldies than be stuck with the band’s untested newer tracks. In my case, however, I don’t think it should matter since I’m not a fan of PSB. I recognized a handful of songs, but I’m really not that well acquainted with their catalog so I shouldn’t have been affected by the old vs. new battle.
However, throughout the show I could instantly tell the difference between new songs and unfamiliar older tracks. The latter were simply much better than the former. They came across as much more tuneful and engaging, whereas the newer numbers tended to be flat and plodding. The show dragged when we got stuck with more recent songs, and they simply weren’t as good.
David Barnard’s direction doesn’t add anything to the package as either. While he avoids quick-cutting and gimmicks, he also fails to bring much energy to the show. This means the result feels like a cookie-cutter piece of direction as it went from one bland shot to another and lacked any flow. It’s not a poor presentation, but the direction doesn’t give any energy or pizzazz to the program.
This leaves Cubism as a pretty mediocre concert presentation. Of course, how much you enjoy it will clearly depend on how much you like Pet Shop Boys. I find a little disco delight in some of their tunes, but they work best when they stick with tracks from their glory days. The DVD offers a sporadically engaging show that will more entertain established fans; it seems less likely to do much for new partisans.