Left to My Own Devices

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 1988
Original album - Introspective
Subsequent albums - Discography, PopArt, Concrete, Pandemonium, Ultimate
Other releases - single (UK #4, US #84, US Dance #8)

"'Left to My Own Devices' was an experiment in seeing how mundane a pop song could be, before setting it against extravagant music."
                       – Neil in the January 2011 issue of Word magazine

A strong contender for the single most dramatic track in the entire PSB catalogue.

So much is going on in this song that it's hard to know where to begin. For one thing, it's tempting to think that something very campy is going on in this recitation of everyday events given an epic, orchestra-on-the-dancefloor treatment (arranged by Richard Niles). Are the Pet Shop Boys implying that everyday life is epic in and of itself? On another front, one critic has described this song as indicative of the "desperation of the gay lifestyle," or some such rot. (Well, there may be a modicum of truth to it. Gay commentator Andrew Sullivan refers to it in this song as a form of "detachment" common among gay people.) One might even combine the aforementioned concepts and suggest that Neil and Chris are providing a camped-up parody of the epic self-referentialism to which certain gay men are inclined.

There's no denying the element of autobiography implicit in this song. For instance, Neil has said that he indeed played English Civil War general to his toy soldiers as a boy, as described in the song, although he admits that at the time he was actually a Cavalier rather than a Roundhead. (His more anti-monarchial leanings as an adult are surely what inspired him to shift his allegiance in the song to King Charles I's opponents, the Roundheads.) Neil's mother was reportedly rather upset when she first heard it (particularly by the lines beginning "I was a lonely boy…."), disheartened to think that he may have had a sad, troubled childhood. Another autobiographical aspect lies in the fact that, according to Neil, his "friend who's a party animal" is none other than well-known British music journalist/pop culture commentator Jon Savage. As for the famous couplet, perhaps the most famous and oft-quoted in the entire PSB corpus—

But in the back of my head I heard distant feet
Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat

—though inspired by the interests of the track's co-producer, Trevor Horn, it's perhaps as good an encapsulation of the Boys' typical musical style (revolutionary sensibilities set to a danceable, romantic, yet occasionally discordant setting) as anything else they themselves have stated so succinctly. The spoken lines toward the end about "Che Guevara's drinking tea … and takes to the stage in a secret life" apparently suggest that he has ceased actually being a "revolutionary" and has instead become a media celebrity: an image on t-shirts, an inspiration for one of the main characters in Evita. In this world, even the subversives get subverted.

And then there's the chorus, with its blasé, hesitant, but strangely affecting confession of love: "I could love you if I tried—and I could. And left to my own devices, I probably would." (Some for whom English isn't their native language have wondered about the meaning of the title phrase. To be "left to one's own devices" is a common idiomatic expression meaning to be forced to rely upon oneself, particularly upon one's own plans and abilities.) It's terribly understated, and yet it's that very understatement that lends it power, as if the narrator can't help but concede his true feelings despite his seeming reluctance to do so.

At any rate, we're probably best off throwing up our hands and admitting that "Left to My Own Devices" is about a lot of different things, and just leave it at that.

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