A Cloud in a Box

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"

This track, written during the highly creative period leading up to and during the sessions for Super, serves as one of the bonus tracks accompanying "Say It to Me," the third single from that album. As Neil said in Issue 42 of their fan publication Literally, the lyrics are derived from a poem of his that was, as he put it, just "lying around." It begins:

Hidden away behind doors and locks
A magician kept a cloud in a box

Neil went on to say that the poem was "completely nonsensical." That may be, but the lyrics in their entirety (available on the official PSB website) are nevertheless absolutely delightful, at least in this writer's opinion. They conjure a marvelously cryptic yet also very basic sense of wonder, almost child-like in their simplicity—appropriately enough considering that two of the characters in the song are indeed children. It demonstrates how well-written verse needn't have any great "meaning" to be extremely evocative, thereby fulfilling a prime emotional if not intellectual function of art.

Notwithstanding Neil's assertion that it's nonsensical, some fans have found significant meaning in his poem. One of the best interpretations I've heard suggests that it may have been inspired, perhaps subconsciously, by Neil's upbringing in the Catholic church. In more than one spot (such as 1 Kings 8:9-11 and 2 Chronicles 5:10-14) the Bible alludes to the appearance of a cloud in the holy tabernacle in Jerusalem representing the presence and glory of God. As one of my site visitors has stated, "The tabernacle contained the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament, and tabernacles are used to store bread and wine in Catholic churches today.  As a result, they're like 'God in a box.'" He went on to note that the magician in the song—who, after all, displays his cloud in a box "once a week" (Sundays perhaps?)—might be analogous to a priest. And the children express different attitudes toward the cloud/God: the girl offers sympathy for the cloud (for Christ's suffering?) while the boy conveys skepticism and doubt ("it shouldn't exist").

This is not to say that this is what "A Cloud in a Box" necessarily "means," but one can't ignore that it does readily lend itself to such an interpretation. Remember the intentional fallacy: artists never have the final word in the interpretation of their work, which can and quite legitimately should mean different things to different people. It's what art does.

Musically, this track is a curious amalgam. For the most part it's a fast-paced synth/dance instrumental. But slightly more than halfway through it all but stops (aside from atmospheric chords in the background and a clicking-clapping beat) for Neil's narration of his poem, which he essentially recites on-pitch and in-tempo using a vocal technique that lies somewhere between singing and mere speaking. This lasts for a little over 40 seconds, after which the instrumental resumes.

In some ways it seems strangely slight, yet there's something quite appealing about it. It has the air of the Boys very consciously trying something different, a genre-busting blend of dance-pop and poetry of the sort seldom if ever heard. So in that sense it's not really an atypical piece, coming as it does from a duo who have made a latter-day habit out of sporadically stretching themselves—and their faithful core audience—with new things that are at times difficult to categorize.


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