At the turn of this century, looking back on the late 1980s when the Pet Shop Boys could do no wrong and everything they touched turned to platinum, Neil Tennant coined the concept of a musician’s ‘imperial phase’. You can be hugely popular at other times in your career – you can sell just as many records – but the imperial phase is something different.
The imperial phase is when an artist isn’t just selling records; it’s when approval of them has reached such a pitch that they can do no wrong. It’s when every magazine and newspaper uses any excuse to run photos of them, when their peers garland them with approval, and they seem to have a golden key that unlocks every day. This period usually defines a star for the rest of their life: a young Elvis swivelling his hips; Marc Bolan with tumbling curls and glitter on his face; Michael Jackson – whose empire stretched further than anyone before or since: the Alexander the Great of pop – in a red leather jacket and a single glove.
Harry Styles is just on the cusp of entering his imperial phase. Don’t be fooled by this show being in a theatre: next month, he’s playing six UK stadiums, which is half a million tickets. He’s got the old guard of pop and rock falling over him. He’s got critics salivating. At this point, if you don’t know what Harry Styles looks like, you may as well drive to Barnard Castle to test your eyesight. He’s a pop star for our times: he projects not rebellion or aloofness, but kindness and decency. He’s an amorphous blob of concern all wrapped up in soft linen. Yet he is so indefinite that you can project whatever you want on to him – as fan, as critic, as anyone.
The vast majority of the show was a top-to-tail run-through of Styles’s coronation, his new album Harry’s House. Once the screams had faded a little – I wore earplugs, and not because of the PA – it didn’t quite work as a live experience, because of a mid-set run of ballads, and because, like his previous two records, it’s two thirds of a really good album. You could tell he was proud of ‘Matilda’ – which is essentially ‘She’s Leaving Home’ for a new generation and the emblematic song of the Kind World of Harry Styles – which called for rapt attention. But a hot, packed room wanted to dance, and the best moments came when they were allowed to.
The amorphousness extended to the music. Styles’s pop identity has been shaped by his style: he communicates visually (want to show empathy to the gender non-conforming? Wear a dress on a magazine cover!), and musically he doesn’t have a clear identity yet. Nor is his voice distinctive enough to stamp an identity. So instead the very best songs here sounded like expert pastiches of other things: ‘Sign of the Times’ is early 1970s Bowie crossed with Robbie Williams’s ‘Angels’; ‘Music for a Sushi Restaurant’ can’t decide whether it wants to be a Mark Ronson or Pharrell Williams production; ‘As It Was’, I suspect, has been studied intently by a-ha for its proximity to ‘Take On Me’. They’re all great reference points, but they are reference points.
Pet Shop Boys, though, sounded like nothing else: an extended exercise in arching one’s eyebrows, set to jackhammering synths. Their current tour pretty much celebrates their own imperial phase – no matter that it is long since passed – which, given that their run of great 1980s and 1990s singles is one of pop’s greatest, was a treat. In one song, ‘Left To My Own Devices’, you could hear how nothing was off-limits during their imperial phase: an absurd, pompous orchestral opening, giving way to a club pulse, and a lyric that went wherever Tennant wanted it to: ‘I was a lonely boy, no strength, no joy/ In a world of my own at the back of the garden/ I didn’t want to compete, or play out on the street/ For in a secret life I was a Roundhead general.’ Even more than 30 years on, I can’t quite believe there was a top five hit with a verse that melded Nazism, childhood loneliness and the English Civil War.
Every song was stunning. You could scarcely have picked a better setlist (unless you’d skipped a couple of the later singles, perhaps). Just one caveat: the O2 is a very big room indeed, and from the top and back of it, this show was not big enough. It would have been great in a theatre, like their run of Royal Opera House shows a few years back. I don’t just mean there wasn’t enough going on; it literally wasn’t big enough. The staging was dwarfed by the vastness of the arena, as if someone had propped an iPhone on its side and invited you to watch it from the kitchen.
But those songs? Perfect. As they put it themselves: ‘Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat.’
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