Burning the HeatherBurning the Heather

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2019
Original album - Hotspot
Producer - Stuart Price
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

This song was released in streaming format in November 2019, well in advance of its parent album Hotspot. The album's second single, following "Dreamland" (described as such by the Pet Shop Boys themselves), it features former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler as a support musician.

Neil has described the lyric as telling the story of a lonely man in a rural pub simply talking to the staff. (Note the concluding line of the chorus, "Give me a drink and I'll be gone.") It has been suggested that it may have been inspired by the case of "Neil Dovestone," the name assigned to an unknown elderly man found dead on Saddleworth Moor in northern England in December 2015. The body was, more than a year later, identified as that of David Lytton, a London native who apparently, at the age of 67 following prolonged bouts of depression, had committed suicide by taking strychnine. Before he had headed out on the moor and taken his own life, he had stopped in at a pub in the town of Greenfield and spent some time talking to people there. A relative later said that he had been "a bit of a loner."

With the title "Burning the Heather," the Boys invite us to regard that as the central, most important theme of the song. The chorus begins "Autumn is here and they're burning the heather." Heather is a common shrub native to Europe and western Asia, especially in "boggy" areas such as the moors of Britain. It has long been used for grazing by sheep and cattle. It benefits from periodic burning, after which the plant regenerates with fresh, nutritious growth. This is often done in autumn to encourage abundant new growth the following spring. Therefore we might consider the idea of regeneration through a seemingly destructive act as the lyric's core concept.

Perhaps Neil is suggesting that this may be what the narrator has in mind as an lonely, elderly man. Now in the autumn of his life, he has come to believe that it's time for him to be "burnt away," so to speak, to make room for new growth. He seems particularly put off by the modern world's obsession with money and finance, dominated by "bread-heads," people overly concerned with money. (See the corresponding annotations below.) He feels out of place—quite literally in that there's no place left for him in the world.

Neil's lyrics, however, are often multi-layered. I can help but think that, in light of the song's opening stanza—

You’ve got me all wrong
I'm not that guy
I'm just the singer of the song
in my mind's eye
If I thought what you think
I wouldn't even be here
I’ve just dropped in for a drink
before I disappear

—that Neil may also be also drawing upon his own experience as "the singer of the song." In asserting that the person(s) to whom he's speaking—which in the case of the song itself as a song, would be us, the listeners—have got him "all wrong" and that he's "not that guy," could he be commenting on fans misinterpreting his lyrics and reading things into them that he doesn't intend, especially in those frequent cases when he adopts the role of an altogether different character in the song? In effect, such a narrative persona simply "drops in" briefly to the listener's life before "disappearing" at the end of the song. Of course, there's a fundamental irony here in that this very interpretation of the lyric may be just such an example of reading "incorrectly" into a song. If that's the case, it's downright paradoxical.

Annotations