April LGBTQ music: Pet Shop Boys and Claire Rousay

Claire Rousay is pictured in conjunction with her album release in April.
Claire Rousay.
Zoe Donahoe

This month’s Gay City News music roundup reviews new albums by gay synth-pop icons the Pet Shop Boys and trans “ambient emo” artist Claire Rousay.

Pet Shop Boys | “Nonetheless”| Parlophone/Warner | April 26th

Pet Shop Boys stand in a dark room in a photo for their latest album artwork
Pet Shop Boys.Alasadair McLellan

By this point, we know what to expect from the Pet Shop Boys: ironic yet sincere lyrics, music that synthesizes disco and synth-pop, arena-ready production. “Nonetheless,” their 15th album, delivers while going in a new direction. It gives off a mood of jaded melancholy, with late ‘60s Scott Walker, Roxy Music’s “Avalon” and ‘80s sophistipop as touchstones. Propelled by strings, “A New Bohemia” and “The Secret of Happiness” are orchestral pop. The album suggests a middle-aged man going clubbing and spending his time alone, watching other people have a great time. (“Why Am I Dancing?” revises Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own,” bluntly questioning “what do I have to celebrate, here on my own?”) “New London Boy” looks back to a man’s memories of the ‘70s (“everyone’s dancing to Roxy and Bowie…hanging around with my glam-rock brothers”), when he wondered “Is everyone gay?/am I just kidding myself?” The video for “Loneliness,” set in the English city of Sheffield in 1992, is an elaborate short film about a young man’s sexual experiences, including cruising urinals. Even “Dancing Star,” which recounts ballet performer Rudolf Nueyev’s defection from the USSR to embrace his talent and bisexuality around the world, gazes back at the past.

Looking inward the past, “Nonetheless” leans towards ballads. Even apparently autobiographical lyrics are addressed to “you.” Coming from singer Neil Tennant, who will turn 70 this summer, lines like “where you gonna run to now from loneliness?” and “the secret of happiness was always concealed from me” hit harder than they might from a young person. While the album is uneven, with “A Bullet for Narcissus” and “Love Is the Law” closing it to an anti-climax, the slow songs are standouts. The more danceable ones strain for energy. Even if the strings are real, they’re tinny and canned, apart from the lush “The Secret of Happiness.” Working with a live orchestra might have improved the album. Including the “Dancing Star” B-side “Sense of Time” would also have livened the album up, while Solomun’s remixes of “Dancing Star” itself toughen the song’s groove.

Going back to their earliest hits in the ‘80s, the group placed downbeat sentiments within danceable songs: “West End Girls” opens on the image of a man contemplating suicide. “Domino Dancing” and “Being Boring” mourned friends’ deaths from AIDS. “In the ‘60s you could feel the freedom,” Tennant sings on “Dancing Star,” while he muses “I wish I lived my life free and easier” during “A New Bohemia.” Even with the need to carry around a brick to fight off potential gay-bashers, “New London Boy” presents the ‘70s as a time of new possibilities. Without coming out and saying it directly, “Nonetheless” is permeated by the sensation that the present moment is just as violent but lonelier and grimmer. Half the time, it mines something powerful from that sentiment.

Claire Rousay | “Sentiment” | Thrill Jockey 

Claire Rousay’s music combines sounds that aren’t supposed to gel, even ones not normally considered musical. Her 2021 song “discrete (the musical)” starts with a sample of a typewriter, before a synthesizer begins droning away, and the rumble of everyday life recurs throughout. She’s placed such noises against emotive piano and violin passages. Her music has an informal vibe, sketching her experiences in the moment. While she relies on acoustic guitar on her latest album “Sentiment,” she also sings through Autotune, turning her voice into an electronic croak.

Rousay’s music can be enigmatic, even as it includes the sound of her voice own singing and speaking. “Sentiment” gets going on a much more direct note. “4pm” begins with Theodore Cale Schafer speaking a text written by Rousay about depression: “I have never felt this alone and discarded in my life…I can already tell that this text will either sound like a suicide note or some pathetic attempt to sound real.” The noise of a drill interrupts him, taking over for almost the entire song. It would be hard to get the album going on a grimmer note, but the simple guitar plucking of “head” changes the mood.

Although “Sentiment” isn’t Rousay’s first album for a label, Thrill Jockey is the biggest one she’s ever worked with. In recent years, she’s connected directly with her audience, offering a subscription service that delivers exclusive music each month. Comparatively, “sentiment” offers the most accessible music she’s made. The album tones down the field recordings, although birds chirp their way through “sycamore skylight” and the interlude “w. sunset blvd” simply plays back a conversation, and flirts with indie folk. Vocals, guitar, and drums are placed at the center, while samples add flavoring. The feeling of witnessing life in the midst of experience has been pushed aside. Still, her music drifts off into soundscapes, with heavily processed vocals on top of acoustic instruments, rather than quickly resolving. The slow, moody pace presents the songs’ emotions as though they emerged fully formed from dreams.