A Dance to the Music of Time — “Always on My Mind”

A Dance to the Music of Time is my attempt to pinpoint exactly why I like pop music (and also try my hand at music criticism). It’s entirely subjective, but if you’re interested in starting a conversation I’ll be down in the comments. It’s gonna be published whenever I feel like it and I’ve no intention to target specific songs — when a song gives me joy or makes me think hard enough, I’ll do it on the spot.


The Song: “Always on My Mind”
a 1987 single by Pet Shop Boys
reached #1 on the UK Singles Chart

For some time now, I’ve been thinking about love. I don’t mean the type where I think about its complexities, where I consider its effects on our lives and the illusions or realities of bliss after you get hitched. I have the more mundane stuff on my mind: when I’m gonna get a girlfriend, or even if I want a romantic relationship right now in my life. I’m 23, for Christ’s sake, and yet I have as much experience of romance as I had five years ago. A couple of crushes here and there, a vague yearning for some sort of complete understanding that I know in my heart is more than impossible. I never get anywhere, though.

I’ve wondered in the past year whether my newfound fascination with pop music is some sort of refuge from this destructive thought process. I said ten months ago that it offers us bliss and a temporary, happy escape from all that plagues us in the world: certainly I believe that the presence of a pandemic has forced us to discover new things so that we don’t spend it endlessly falling down an all-consuming thought spiral. But escape carries with it a shadow, or perhaps a reminder that sooner or later you will have to come back to earth. A good pop song, then, is what kicks you straight out of that funk and makes you believe in not just the possibility of another world, but also that you belong in it. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” was an induction into that world. Pet Shop Boys’ version of “Always on My Mind” is the second step — telling you that this world, and specifically the romantic love you find in it, might just be a little overblown.

Listen to it. Listen to that EXPLOSION of noise that comes five seconds in. (Apologies to anyone who forgot to turn down their headphone volume.) Ain’t that just the most exuberant thing you’ve ever heard? A blast of wind, the quickening pulse of the cowbells, and then a blast of synthesizers that simply tears up the skies and echoes into infinity. I think I might have listened to those first thirty seconds alone more than the song itself: Neil Tennant’s vocals, while pleasant enough, always pull me back down to Earth just when I’m getting comfortable in paradise. I need more. I’m simply not hyped enough.

That bombastic prologue is something exclusive to this version: that burst of energy is nowhere to be found in versions preceding Pet Shop Boys’. “(You Were) Always on My Mind”, like many of the songs I’ve covered on this blog, is one that had a very long history before it reached Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. Every previous version of the song — whether sung by Gwen McCrae, Elvis Presley, or Willie Nelson — all of them are slow and ponderous, accompanied by nothing more than a piano or an acoustic guitar. The lyrics give us small, delicate moments that are too intimate to be ruined by grand gestures — instead, the “little things I should have said and done”, for which “I never took the time” are placed front and centre, given the quiet respect they deserve. No distractions are allowed here: it’s just me and my voice, begging for your forgiveness.

But the funny thing about the lyrics is that they absolutely can go both ways. “Maybe I didn’t love you/Quite as often as I should” can absolutely be a contrite statement of repentance, at least from my unexperienced and Aspergified point of view. (Is that a word? It is now.) On the other hand, Neil and Chris decided, upon reading the lyrics, that they were very much a passive-aggressive demand for understanding — or in the former’s words, the “typical country music sentiment that the man should be a bastard”. Now, PSB songs have a reputation for being all sardonic and layered with loads of subtext, which is not necessarily true — I’ve loved both “Being Boring” and “Heart” — but their biggest hits have been the ones which say one thing and hint at multitudes underneath: “West End Girls”, “What Have I Done to Deserve This”, and so on. But injecting sarcasm, a completely different perspective, into an already established classic? That forces us to ask new questions, establishes a whole new playing field where previously unheard-of possibilities compete for recognition. Everything we have previously taken for granted has just become a lie.

Tennant and Lowe thread that instability through the song: amidst all the bombast, it’s easy to lose track of the subtle hints that everything is not as it seems. Well, the bombast is part of it too — such a grand statement has little to do with the receiver and more to do with making the giver feel secure — but even more clever is how they subvert the lyrics and make the same sentence sound much less natural than it used to. “I’m so happy that you’re mine” and “I’m so sorry, I was blind” are lines which in the previous country versions sound like genuine articulations of feeling. He’s really sorry, and she’s really happy. Here, they turn into bland statements of pathos, as Neil sounds breathless and unconvinced while rushing through the words with absolutely no emotion at all. Of course, this is how Neil Tennant normally sings, but even the blandest of singers can imbue their words with tenderness if they want to — a tenderness which is just not here.

The evidence lays on more and more, and then the clincher arrives just as the music is dying away, when we hear Neil musing quietly, “maybe I… didn’t love you…” He makes no effort to complete the sentence before the song ends. I always chuckle when I hear this bit, or at least smile to myself: it’s no more emotional than the previous things he’s sung, but it strikes differently this time because he’s finally admitting the awful truth. He doesn’t really care, he’s just trying to delay the inevitable and stave off the breakup. But it’s there, and ironically the quietest, blandest line of the entire song is the most truthful and sincere. Catharsis, no matter how unpleasant, has finally been achieved.

And we’re supposed to like this, this moment of truth, this feeling of release. After all, we all prefer it when nothing is hidden from us, when a singer sounds like they mean everything they say. But is it possible — just about probable –- that being insincere sounds absolutely amazing? Because that’s not why I, why any of us, listen to PSB’s version of “Always on My Mind”. When that gust of wind blows through, when the cowbells start pumping, do you stop to think about what the singer might be planning behind our backs? Absolutely not — what goes through my mind is just six words: “oh God yes, here we go”. When that synthesized fanfare comes through my headphones, it’s like a shot of adrenaline, a burst of pure energy. We live for the sheer pleasure, the sheer exuberance that comes from that kick. Their 1988 album Introspective, which remixed the song heavily and stretched it to a hefty nine-and-a-half minutes, takes this idea of release even further, holding it back for almost six — almost two-thirds of the whole track. That wait is agonizing, and most days I can’t wait that long — I need my fix now, right then and there. But when I make the decision to spend ten minutes of my life on it (commercials, man), it’s very, very much worth it.

It’s simply impossible to overstate just how fun this song is. Every particle of this song raises your heartbeat by another notch, adds another layer of grandiosity to the songs. The strings underscoring the titular phrase, the high note that squeals during the musical interlude, everything seeks to set your foot tapping, your heart racing, for you to dance the blues away. But my favourite part is during the bridge, when Neil Tennant sings “tell me” ever so softly, and a crash of thunder answers him as the music dims just a bit. It’s like he has control over the heavens. I was sitting on a minibus that was careening down a country road when this song came on a couple of days ago, and suddenly everything just seemed epic, as if I was on a heroic mission to do something or other. (It’s less far-fetched than you think. After all, that’s when I decided to write this up.)

So despite the lyrical insensitivity, “Always on My Mind” is at its heart a simple song. It has, as my frequent reference Tom Ewing calls it, “no real gameplan or reason to exist other than to delight people”. And the fact that you can garner sheer joy from (or despite) complete insincerity makes me wonder: is romance even necessary in this equation? To be clear, I don’t think that Pet Shop Boys are being anti-love in this song: they have plenty of love songs elsewhere, and it’s obvious that they’re more critiquing the arsehole who dares to palm off their lover with such platitudes. But that subtext flies out the window when I listen to this song — I am willingly fooling myself that this singer is sincere, that he’s actually promising me happiness instead of giving the relationship a kiss of death. I am very much aware of this attempted deception, and when I’m not listening to the song, it does bother me, ever so slightly.

But when this song comes up, I don’t give a damn. Because I’m too busy dancing, or rather doing the convulsions that pass as dancing for me. As I’ve said up there, I don’t think about romance or love whenever I listen to this song: it’s all about me for those four minutes, about how I’m feeling happy. So my romance didn’t work out? Who cares? I’m happy right now, dancing on the floor. Perhaps Pet Shop Boys pinpointed (or changed) what this song was all about: self-love and catharsis, not a sappy emotion directed at somebody else. Whenever this version of the song comes up: at parties, at live shows like the one you see below — people forget themselves, and just enjoy pure, unadulterated fun. You don’t need romance to feel happy. All you need is a fantastically exuberant song.

At the end of the day, I’m not done with romance — that’s not the thing Neil and Chris want you to take from this. But what this record suggests to me, right here right now, is that the all-encompassing powers of love and romance can be a little overrated. Just put on some happy music, and dance the night away.

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