With Closer to Heaven, the Pet Shop Boys make a winning pop record and call it musical theater.
Purists, beware: If you don't fancy a techno beat pulsing beneath your show music, you're probably not going to like this recording. Finally appearing in the States is the original London cast recording of Closer to Heaven, perhaps better known as 'that Pet Shop Boys musical.' When it opened in the West End on May 31, 2001, the show garnered intrigued-to-negative notices from the London papers. Some critics accepted it as a discotheque trifle and celebrated its youthful spirit with the fervor of New York critics first encountering Rent, but most of 'em just hated it, and the show ran less than six months.
With a book by playwright Jonathan Harvey (Beautiful Thing), Closer to Heaven is about Straight Dave, a fresh-faced Irish lad who comes to London and lands in the hedonistic club scene. He gets involved with a girl named Shell, is discovered by a shady pop record producer, and soon gives the lie to his nickname when he falls in love with another guy, a drug dealer called Mile End Lee. Like a staged rave, Heaven was full of sex and drugs and homosexuality--which, according to the show's advocates, is what turned off the crotchety old critics. Others would argue that it was the thin plot, the subpar lyrics, and the general vulgarity of the production that bothered the reviewers. But most of that becomes irrelevant when listening to the album.
The Pet Shop Boys (Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe) deserve a pat on the back for writing an original score rather than simply shoehorning a hodgepodge of their hits into some hokey plot. That said, ambition doth not a great theater composer make, and Tennant and Lowe don't seem to be heirs to Jonathan Larson (let alone Lerner and Loewe). The lyrics of Closer to Heaven are wildly uneven--smart one moment, silly the next. They undermine their own cleverness in the brilliantly titled song "It's Just My Little Tribute to Caligula, Darling!" which unfortunately repeats its title phrase as a relentless chorus over a hard-driving beat. And for all the boom-boom-boom, the show doesn't seem to be driven by a significant dramatic pulse. (Of course it's unfair to expect the cast album to carry the weight of the show; it's likely that the story unfolds more clearly on stage.)
Tennant and Lowe are at their best when they simply allow themselves to be the Pet Shop Boys. In fact, if the Boys had released Closer to Heaven as a regular pop album, it might have been regarded as an impressive achievement: an aural presentation of club life as experienced by an interesting group of London undergroundlings. Good character songs ("Call Me Old Fashioned," "Friendly Fire," and "Vampires") are plentiful here. There are also some poignant duets (e.g., "Nine Out of Ten") and a couple of raise-the-roof numbers ("My Night," "Shameless.") Straight Dave's opener, "Something Special," is lovely, though a little predictable. The title song is terrific and the 11 o'clock number, "For All of Us," is bittersweet and redemptive. The score is a mixture of dreamy, melodious ballads and soaring techno pounders, reminiscent of the best of '80s synth pop and '90s techno.