The Dead Can Dance

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2016
Original album - (none)
Producer - Pet Shop Boys
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - bonus track with the single "Say It to Me"

Another song written during the Super sessions, which the Boys said off the bat was a good candidate for release as a "b-side" of a future single. Sure enough, it served that purpose with the single release of "Say It to Me." It's inspired by the 2010 book The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin by U.S. academic Stephen F. Cohen, about how Soviet prisoners sent to gulags during the Stalin and Khrushchev eras later returned to their homes and families as if "from the dead." As Chris described it, "The music's quite rock."

Most stanzas of the lyrics conclude with the repeated refrain "The dead can speak / The dead can dance," with only occasional slight variations. One more pronounced variation, however, occurs late in the song, with "The dead can sing / The dead can dance." And the final stanza provides a major inversion, beginning with the repeated refrain and concluding with an profound expression of the emotional effect the returning former prisoners have on others: "And they'll freeze your blood with just one glance." In this way the Boys toy with the notion of these real-life metaphorical revenants possessing the same sort of supernatural powers that literal albeit fictional nosferatu—the living dead, particularly vampires—are often said to possess. It's a remarkable irony invoked not so much by the actual situation itself but rather by how Neil has chosen to describe it.

To be sure, as described in the song, these returnees from the seeming dead pose very real threats to at least some of those they will now encounter. A "panic attack" spreads among the living. These returnees will now confront enemies, betrayers, and other guilty parties who played roles in their unjust exiles and detentions. What secrets will they reveal? What vengeance will they seek? What redress will they demand? In a very literal sense, a judgment day may be at hand.

Musically, this song seems at first to be highly repetitive, employing a recurring four-line melody and chord structure that closely parallels the lyrical verse structure, which is itself rather repetitive. But it adopts a theme-and-variations approach, starting out somewhat simply, dominated by a harsh, slightly dissonant piano, but building upon that base with additional instrumental and vocal textures in each stanza. Then, a little later, it steps back, adopting a simpler musical approach again, but now with different, less harsh-sounding instrumentation than before. And then it starts building again. In short, what Chris and Neil have done here is to take an unusally simple—and, again, repetitive—song structure and livened up the arrangement to make it far more engaging than it would otherwise have been.


List cross-references