The Pet Shop Boys had a hard act to follow. The group’s debut album, Please, has sold around three million copies worldwide and spawned four hit singles, one of which was that inescapable 1980s song “West End Girls.” Not to be outdone, the Pet Shop Boys followed Please with Actually, which also spawned four UK hit singles–and, in my opinion, is one of their best albums and one of the greatest albums of the all time.
If one recognizes anything from Actually, it’s most likely the lead single: “It’s a Sin.” The song has since become a staple of Pet Shop Boys concerts–and for good reason. “It’s a Sin” is an amazingly bombastic and over the top ode to singer Neil Tennant’s Catholic school upbringing. This song goes hard. The amazingly loud and flashy arrangement pair perfectly well with the lyrics about taking pleasure in the forbidden. The synths are busy, the percussion pounds throughout the entire song, the lyrics practically bleed religious imagery, down to the point where there’s an actual Latin passage finishing off the song.
The Pet Shop Boys are always thoughtful of how voice and synthesizer interact, but “It’s a Sin” relishes in it: the way the synth mirrors the vocal line in the second verse and chorus is downright sublime. Keyboardist Chris Lowe swaps through the synths with such speed, jumping from setting to setting in a way that happily toes the line of overdone. Unsurprisingly, the song climbed to the top of the charts, peaking at #1 in various countries.
[Side note: the original video seems to have been scrubbed from Youtube, but definitely prowl around the internet to see if you can find it. It’s this amazing 1980s slightly Blade Runner slightly Spanish Inquisition beautiful piece of ostentatious nonsense.]
Actually is definitively a synthpop album, filled to the brim with various synth tricks of the trade. “Shopping” features heavy vocal manipulations and beautifully distorted vocal lines paired with a minimalist background. The dreamy, languid synths of “Hit Music” and “It Couldn’t Happen Here” serve as a contrast to the poppier fare of the rest of the album. Likewise, Actually is definitively 1980s. Though the Pet Shop Boys never harshly attack any of their subjects, various songs on Actually serve as loose critiques of various issues affecting 1980s Britain. “King’s Cross” serves as a critique of Thatcherism and “Shopping” serves as a critique of privatization. “King’s Cross” and “It Couldn’t Happen Here” both obliquely reference the AIDS crisis. It’s a product of it’s time, but not heavily so and not in a way that dates the album beyond all enjoyment.
Despite it firmly staking its place in the synthpop genre, Actually isn’t afraid to explore different directions. “Heart” is a downright conventional pop song, that the group originally planned to offer to other musicians including Madonna. “It Couldn’t Happen Here” is co-written by legendary film composer Ennio Morricone. And “What Have I Done to Deserve This” helped revive the career of 1960s British blue-eyed soul singer Dusty Springfield. Springfield’s voice perfectly complements Tennant’s in this song about a shaky relationship. “What Have I Done” shows that the Pet Shop Boys know how to use silence as well as sound. Wisely, there’s a brief pause before Springfield starts singing, letting her get that first phrase (“Since you went away”) in relatively a capella, showing off the fact that even twenty years later, her voice still can pack a punch.
Actually isn’t just an amazing follow-up album: it’s an amazing album in general. At least in my opinion, it doesn’t have any outright duds. And the songs where the Pet Shop Boys are in top form are some of their best. Actually has received plenty of accolades, sold millions of album copies, and has consistently been placed on various ‘Best of the 1980s’ or ‘Albums To Listen To Before You Die’ lists. And in my opinion? It deserves every single one of those rankings. Give it a listen: you won’t regret it.