Memory of the Future

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2012
Original album - Elysium
Producer - Andrew Dawson, Pet Shop Boys
Subsequent albums - Smash
Other releases - single (UK #111)

The third single from Elysium, this song is full of contradictions—and it's an amazingly powerful song for it. Both happy and sad, both deceptively simple and remarkably complex, its central contradiction stems from the title itself. How can there be "memory of the future"? The opening stanza spells it out, though it takes a while to sink in:

You seem to be
Inevitable to me
Like a memory of the future
I was and will be with you

The key word there is "inevitable." The narrator feels as though the person (presumably a lover, or perhaps a would-be lover) to whom he's speaking was fated to be part of his life, as if they were predetermined or perhaps even preordained to be together. Whether you consider this from a perspective religious (preordination) or non-religious (determinism) in nature, in either case it contains an implicit element of atemporality—timelessness—suggesting that memory of the future makes every bit as much sense as memory of the past. (Neil has used the word "predestined" in reference to this concept, which covers both perspectives.) To put it in more everyday terms, the narrator cannot imagine life without his partner, so much so that he can't help but feel that his entire life has led up to their coming together: "It's taken me all of my life to find you." And it is in their coming together that the entire process—his life—has its meaning.

More sensibly from a literal perspective, Neil might just as well have described it as a vision of the future. But then something would have been lost—

The most striking line of the song is the recurring "Over and over again I keep tasting that sweet madeleine." With this metaphor drawn from Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu (see my "annotations" below), Neil manages to say more in a single sentence than most tunesmiths can conjure in an entire song. For all of its sweetness, this "memory of the future"—an involuntary memory if we take the Proust connection to heart—carries an underlying element of urgency and dread. How else can you explain the persistently ominous sound of this song? It's conveyed not only through its intense minor-key tonality (the "It's taken me all of my life" refrain does shift temporarily to a major key each time we hear it, but by doing so it accentuates the minor key of the rest of the song) but also its instrumentation and arrangement. How many other PSB tracks have a more foreboding opening?

And what's the source of this urgency and dread? The very fact that he may indeed be a pawn of fate. If this is the case, then whether his life will prove bitter or sweet is determined by forces beyond his control. Not a very comforting thought. And for this narrator, his fate is largely determined by one force in particular: the "you" to whom he's singing.

You seem to be
A perfect memory of the future
Reminding me
How life is meant to be

His "memory of the future" is the nagging belief in how happy his life would be with the one he loves, the person whom it has taken his whole life to find. The implicit corollary, of course, is how unhappy his life will be if his love is not returned. And apparently that, so far, is precisely the case, which leaves him to ask himself (with an inversion of time invited by the title phrase), "If not later, then when?" The madeleine may be sweet, but that sweetness also makes it bitter since so far it's still only a "memory."

No wonder this song sounds so happy and sad at the same time.

One of my site visitors has shared an interesting alternate interpretation of the song in which he believes that Neil (or at least his narrative persona) is, in effect, addressing his late parents. I have to admit that a number of lines do lend themselves to such a reading, such as when he sings, "You unlock the past/So many scenes moving fast." In such an interpretation, the "memory of the future" of which he sings might be the lifelong commitment in marriage that his parents exemplified, and which he longs for in his own life. But, as intriguing as such a view of the song may be, Neil has specifically stated that the song and its inspiration has nothing whatsoever to do with his parents (unlike "Leaving," which was, at least initially, very much inspired by them). On the contrary, he has described it as "about the fact of falling in love with someone feeling so inevitable that it's like remembering the happy future that lies ahead." Incidentally, Neil has also denied any conscious influence of the title of the short story collection Memories of the Future by the Russian author Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, written in the 1920s but not published until 2009. He concedes, however, that he may have seen the title somewhere along the way and that it may have stuck in the back of his mind, thereby possibly becoming an unconcious influence.



Officially released

List cross-references