Living in the Past

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2023
Original album - Lost (EP - digital edition only)
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

Not to be confused with the classic Jethro Tull song from more than a half-century before, famed as one of the extremely few hits in 5/4 time.

On February 10, 2023, without any fanfare, advance announcement, or even faint hints, the Pet Shop Boys surprised everyone with the sudden release of a brand new song via YouTube. "Living in the Past," described as a "home demo," was clearly written (or at least its lyrics were, if not its music) only very shortly before, inspired by events of only a week earlier that the Boys had noted on their website. There on February 3, under the header "Stalin is back," they wrote about how "A new bust of the Soviet dictator was unveiled in Volgograd, Russia, as [Vladimir] Putin arrived, invoking Stalin in a twisted defence of his war on Ukraine." (This event took place the day before, on February 2, 2023.) Accordingly, to a slow, simple, somber piano backdrop—with subtle highlights by what sounds like a vibraphone, though undoubtedly synthesized or sampled—the new song's lyrics begin:

I arrive in the city
Where they've unveiled a bust
My predecessor
Still much discussed

In this way Neil writes and sings from Putin's own perspective.

He goes on to note how "We tried to forget" Stalin even as history had recorded his countless crime against humanity, but "new circumstances" (that is, the war on Ukraine) have inspired a reassessment of his legacy: "Once again he's a god." We'll soon see precisely why this is the case.

The lyrics further describe how Putin wants people to fear him, just as everyone had feared Stalin: “I want men to die with my name on their lips.” Perhaps the song's cleverest, most memorable lyrical turn takes place during its bridge (middle eight), as synth strings join in. Neil has Putin declare himself "a living embodiment of a heart of stone" as well as "a human monument to testosterone." He thereby parallels the bust of Stalin he has just unveiled: what Stalin now is as a hard, cold, dead sculpture, Putin has become in living, human form. It also suggests the notion of "testosterone poisoning": overly aggressive, even pathological behavior triggered by a warped excess of supposedly "masculine" values and ambition.

By the song's end, Neil—his voice betraying bitter, scarcely concealed emotion—unveils Putin's greater objectives. Regarding the West as "effete," Putin wants "the old status quo," before the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Russia was an undisputed superpower. Yes, it's back to the days of Stalin, when both the leader and his nation were feared: “I remember how it was, and I won't let it go.”

It's a truly powerful song, wrenched, as it were, from the evening news. Popular music simply doesn't get much more timely than this.



Officially released

List cross-references