The Way Through the Woods

Writers - Kipling/Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2012
Original album - (none)
Producer (long version) - Pet Shop Boys; (original version) - Andrew Dawson, Pet Shop Boys
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - bonus track with single "Winner"

In the January 2013 issue of their fan club publication Literally, the Pet Shop Boys revealed that this is the first song to be released from several they have written for a prospective project—"which," Neil adds, "will probably never come to fruition"—that would consist of famous poems set to new Tennant-Lowe music "for schoolchildren to sing."

Although the poem "The Way Through the Woods" by the famed British author Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) may have appeared in print earlier, it was first anthologized in 1910 in his collection Rewards and Fairies. The Boys recorded their setting of this poem to music during the Winter 2012 Elysium sessions in Los Angeles. But they apparently felt somewhat dissatisfied with the original recording and decided more could be done with it. After returning to London they developed it further, in the process creating a longer track—and, in fact, one of the more ambitious, experimental tracks in the PSB canon. (More about that original version in a moment, however.)

Kipling's haunting poem—which many commentators regard as somewhat uncharacteristic of him, not at all like the more familiar works by which the general public knows him best—is now in the public domain and can therefore be reproduced here in its entirety:

They shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath,
And the thin anemones.
Only the keeper sees
That, where the ring-dove broods,
And the badgers roll at ease,
There was once a road through the woods.

Yet, if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late,
When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools
Where the otter whistles his mate.
(They fear not men in the woods,
Because they see so few)
You will hear the beat of a horse's feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods...
But there is no road through the woods.

Like one of the songs with which it appears as a bonus track on the "Winner" single—the PSB remake of the Bee Gee's "I Started a Joke"—these enigmatic lines inspire multiple interpretations. My job here isn't to delve into all or even many of them. But the reading that strikes me as the most interesting—and, to my mind, the most reasonable and appealing—is that the "way through the woods" Kipling is describing here serves as an extended metaphor for the state of religious faith in the modern age. That is, religious faith once offered a secure path through the dark, forboding forests of life, but that particular road had been "closed" by the new ideas and ideals in the sciences and industry that burgeoned in the Victorian Age, such as Darwin's theory of evolution. Kipling even suggests at the end that there had never really been a "road" there to begin with: that what was "lost" had been illusory all along.

The PSB track opens with an extended instrumental section roughly a minute-and-a-half in length that's almost prog-rockish in its unusual melodic and harmonic structure. (Could it be that Chris is giving vent to the fondness for Pink Floyd that he alludes to from time to time?) It evolves into a highly atmospheric midtempo piece with a prominent synth line, backed by "natural" sound effects: birds singing, insects buzzing, perhaps wind and/or water, indeed evocative of a woodland setting. (Come to think of it, it's vaguely reminiscent of similar effects employed in that prog-rock masterwork, "Close to the Edge" by Yes.) The sound of heavy breathing can also be heard, suggesting someone jogging through the forest. Neil's voice finally enters the mix, singing Kipling's words to a pretty but again rather unconventional melody. He's soon joined by orchestral strings and, for a couple lines, what sounds like a children's chorus. (The Los Angeles-based adult vocal groups Sonos and the Waters are among the backup singers, but there are several others as well, some of whom may indeed be children.) The poem's ominous final line—"But there is no road through the woods"—ends on an unresolved chord, making it sound all the more foreboding.

After the poem ends, the track continues with an extended coda, percussion joining in for a more strongly rhythmic feel. The children's voices return, punctuating the coda with repetitions of two key lines—"They fear not men in the woods/Because they see so few"—as everything gradually fades to silence.

It's not only one of the Pet Shop Boys' most ambitious, experimental tracks; it's also one of their most haunting. At least, that's true of the "long version" released with the "Winner" single. It didn't take long for the much shorter "original version" to come to light as well, released as a bonus on the Japanese edition of Elysium, where it served as the closing track, the function for which the Boys had originally intended it. It's essentially a somewhat less percusive mix of the song minus the lengthy instrumental intro and the extended coda. I must say that it's quite lovely in and of itself, but it's over almost as soon as it gets going well. As a result, it pales in comparison with the long version. As is nearly always the case, the Boys' artistic instincts have served them extremely well. They took what might othewise have been regarded as a pleasant enough little throwaway and turned it into a real showcase for their grander musical vision.

Mixes

Officially released

List cross-references