Numb

Writers - Diane Warren
First released - 2006
Original album - Fundamental
Producer - Trevor Horn
Subsequent albums - Concrete
Other releases - single (UK #23)

In mid-2003 Neil and Chris approached the tremendously successful American songwriter Diane Warren for a new song. In response she provided three, and "Numb" was the one the Boys chose. (She had previously offered it to Aerosmith, who turned it down.) The Pet Shop Boys recorded it in late 2003 with Trevor Horn serving as producer, and though they had originally considered it for inclusion of PopArt, they opted to save it for their next studio album. Horn has described the track as going "from electronic to acoustic and back again, twice, with a 50-piece orchestra."

Although Warren has been derided—unfairly, in my opinion—as a "factory composer" who cranks out material as if it were a 9-to-5 job, Chris has publicly referred to her as "a great songwriter." To be sure, she has a track record to back it up, counting Ace of Base's "Don't Turn Around," DeBarge's "Rhythm of the Night," LeAnn Rimes's "How Do I Live," Aerosmith's "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," Toni Braxton's "Un-break My Heart," Cher's "If I Could Turn Back Time," Gloria Estefan's "Live for Loving You," and several Celine Dion standards (including "Because You Loved Me" and "If You Asked Me To") in her songwriting catalog. In fact, she has more than 70 chart hits to her credit. If commercial success is a measure of greatness, then Diane Warren is indisputably great.

"Numb" was inspired in part by the death of Warren's mother—although, in the context of Fundamental, the Pet Shop Boys' rendition could be viewed as a statement of psychological withdrawal in the face of terrorism. (I can't claim this as an original insight. Rather, I borrowed it from Brittle-Lemon's marvelous blog Tremble Clef, where you can find some other extremely intelligent observations about the album's other songs, most notably "Minimal.") On a BBC radio broadcast shortly after recording it in the studio, Neil described the song as melodically difficult to sing; atypically, he had to use sheet music. The lyrics, by contrast, are remarkably simple; in fact, they seem almost a one-note recitation of all the different ways in which the narrator doesn't want to feel anything anymore, such as:

I just wanna be numb
I don't wanna feel this pain no more
Want to lose touch
I just wanna go and lock the door

While this might seem a flaw, it actually lends great strength to the core emotion of the song. That is, someone who's numb wouldn't be able to write an elaborate, highly poetic lyric. Actual numbness would probably result in a simple, somewhat repetitive lyric that articulates the same numb feelings over and over again, which is pretty much was this song does. Then again, the narrator isn't truly numb at all; rather, she wants to be numb. And that's the essence of human tragedy. If a person were to achieve numbness, she would escape the pain but would sacrifice her humanity in the process. To be human is to hurt, and sometimes very badly.

An interesting sidenote is that Neil had wanted to use a sample of the Art of Noise track "Moments in Love" in their recording of "Numb." But producer Horn—who happens to be a co-writer of "Moments in Love"—said that he would only allow someone to sample it in exchange for 100% of the royalties. (Apparently Trevor Horn isn't fond of others sampling his work.) Needless to say, that effectively quashed Neil's idea.

At any rate, regardless of whether Neil and Chris approached Warren out of commercial considerations, admiration for her songcraft, or a combination of the two, "Numb" was a potentially powerful collaboration (PSB, Warren, and Horn). Perhaps not surprisingly, it was tapped as Fundamental's third single. The remarkable (and rather spooky) photo gracing the single sleeve was, as revealed by the official PSB website, taken by Sam Taylor-Wood in November 2003. It depicts Chris and Neil looking out through the window of a pub (The Jerusalem Tavern in London) wearing medieval "plague doctor" masks that they had recently bought while visiting Venice.

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