Neil's 15 most memorable lyrical personae

During the Pet Shop Boys' long career, Neil has assumed literally dozens of different lyrical personae—in essence, "characters"—in their songs. Some are particularly memorable for their cleverness, vividness, and/or poignancy. The following are, at least in my opinion, his greatest, presented in chronological order:

1. The crass aspiring hitmaker in "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)"

A character so effectively drawn that many listeners failed—and still fail—to grasp the irony and to distinguish between the singer and the song.

2. The kept woman (or rent boy, depending on your perspective) in "Rent"

In some ways an absolutely shocking narrative, one that invites endless speculation, yet piquant enough to make this one of the Pet Shop Boys' most covered songs.

3. Himself in "Being Boring"

It's always risky to identify a lyrical persona as truly being the singer-songwriter himself, but in this case there's no doubt about it. And it's quite possibly the Pet Shop Boys' single most touching, unforgettable lyric.

4. The bewildered Russian composer in "My October Symphony"

How would it feel if your world were suddenly to change so radically that everything you've ever believed and done is called into question? It's not a situation in which we'd like to find ourselves, but Neil forces us to confront it.

5. The gay/bisexual man bullied by his female lover in "Can You Forgive Her?"

Although he sings in the second person ("you") in such a way that he's not really "portraying" the song's protagonist (making inclusion here a bit questionable), Neil nonetheless gives powerful voice to this tragicomic character's perspective: his heartrending insecurities and his complex blend of emotions—anger, fear, worry, and profound regret.

6. The AIDS-haunted surviving partner in "Dreaming of the Queen"

The Boys do a magnificent job of conveying the horror of waking up from a merely unpleasant dream to an utter nightmare. Is there a more anguished line in the entire PSB canon than "There are no more lovers left alive"?

7. The glib, hapless Euro-businessman in "Single"

One of the Pet Shop Boys' greatest comic creations, yet not without a poignant edge.

8. The bitter lip-synching drag queen in "Electricity"

Another shocker, almost painful to listen to. But you can still hear the character's stubborn, begrudgingly admirable pride beneath the unpleasant exterior.

9. The AWOL Russian soldier longing for a better life in "London"

As great a lyric as it is, one line pretty much sums it up: "I want to live before I die."

10. The naive (but not too naive) teenaged fan in "The Night I Fell in Love"

An especially clever lyrical persona that enables the Pet Shop Boys to make multi-layered commentary about homophobia—both actual and alleged—in the music of Eminem, rap in general, and, even more generally, popular culture overall.

11. The rejected lover in "I Made My Excuses and Left"

Drawing inspiration from the story of Cynthia Lennon discovering her husband John's love for Yoko, Neil delivers one of his most heartbreaking narratives (given no small assist by Chris's equally heartbreaking melody), particularly in the last verse's distant retrospection.

12. Tony Blair—or not—in "I'm with Stupid"

An ingeniously ambiguous persona, which can be interpreted either as an ordinary guy rationalizing his romantic relationship with an apparent dim bulb or as U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair talking about his international political relationship with U.S. President George W. Bush. (Honorable mention goes to "I Get Along," which also features a Tony Blair-inspired narrator.)

13. The sardonic Victorian graverobber in "The Resurrectionist"

He exhibits every bit of the macabre graveyard humor that we would expect from such a character. How many other acts can you think of that would write a song like this, much less record and release it?

14. The middle-aged Internet hookup in "Gin and Jag"

A portrait of almost frightening intensity. We're not at all sure how much of what he says we can actually believe, but one thing is as clear as the crystal of that expensive decanter: he can barely conceal his basic contempt for his would-be lover and, possibly, himself.

15. The reluctant autocrat in "The Dictator Decides"

Before I heard this song, it had never occurred to me that some dictators might not want to be dictators. Leave it to the Pet Shop Boys to provide a fresh, wholly unexpected, even sympathetic perspective on such a character. I know that Neil gets irked by the "ironic" label but, I'm sorry, if this isn't ironic, I don't know what is.