This is a big song. Massed ranks of synth cadences, cheesy and ebullient – it’s as if Chris Lowe is alien to the concept of subtlety. The Imperial Prussian army of the 1860’s didn’t (to the best of my knowledge) release synth-pop records, but if they did, they would probably have sounded like this.
Still, it’s important to acknowledge that cheesy and ebullient doesn’t automatically mean naff or disposable. ‘So Hard’ is a mainstream pop single, hence needs to be understood in this context. But it’s also a Pet Shop Boys track, which means that subversion lurks never too far from the agenda; when Lowe flicks switches labelled “blousy fanfare” or “military choir”, it’s all executed with a knowing wink and a sense of hoopla.
This is a big song, from a big album (1990’s Behaviour) by a duo with a weighty back catalogue and a large footprint planted across the pop landscape – all of which makes it trickier to contemplate one specific track in isolation. Admission: I’m not a fan, should fandom equate to a shelf full of Pet Shop Boys LPs, whilst with each subsequent release I’d maybe query the relevance (albeit there’s a significant number of middle-aged collectives busy despoiling their legacy in far more insidious ways). What I would however suggest – and this is perfectly exemplified by ‘So Hard’ – is that at their best, any gratuitous grandiloquence about the music is refracted by Neil Tennant’s wry and waspish lyrics. Not so much the vocal delivery (although there is that, too) but the manner in which he understands the politics of relationship, then exploits that knowledge for the benefit of the song with all sorts of acerbic intent.
For ‘So Hard’ is about duality of relationship. The love/hate axis. Ennui. Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf in a shade under four minutes. The language here is delicious: I’ve tried hard not to shock you / It’s hard not to with the things I could say. Or: You lock your letters in a box and you’ve hidden the key / I go one better – I’m indebted to a contact magazine. The playfulness and the deadpan delivery travel hand-in-hand through this – and neither is this a simple meditation upon infidelity; rather, all this shagging about is used as a motif through which reconciliation (or at least its possibility) is batted back and forth as if the mechanics of a curious game (If you give up your affairs forever I will give up mine / But it’s hard / So hard).
And not to labour the point, but Tennant’s lyrics so often touch upon the darker contours of matters of the heart (the tracks that have captured my attention – and understand that I’m no completest: ‘Rent’, ‘Heart’, ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This’, ‘Left To My Own Devices’, ‘You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk’, and also the ‘I’m Not Scared’, the single they wrote for the otherwise forgettable Patsy Kensit-fronted Eighth Wonder). In other words, there’s a curious flip going on when compared to many synth-driven records I hold dear, in that imparted words are so much superior to the banks of electronic statement.
Pet Shop Boys / So Hard
The KLF vs Pet Shop Boys / So Hard