The Samurai in Autumn

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2002
Original album - Release
Producer - Pet Shop Boys
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

Boasting a somewhat more "familiar" sound for the Boys amidst examples of their more "unconventional" (for them) style on Release, this uptempo, strongly syncopated track with sweeping synthesized orchestration comes close to being an instrumental. The only lyrics, sung several times by Neil, are the following three lines:

It's not as easy as it was
Or as difficult as it could be
For the samurai in autumn

Within a deceptively simple framework, the Boys have pulled off something quite remarkable, which can be fully understood only by peeling away its various layers. As befitting its ostensibly Japanese subject matter, the words are in the style of traditional Japanese poetry, striving for economy of language. While it doesn't fit the standard pattern of that most well-known of Japanese poetic forms, a haiku (three lines of five, seven, and five syllables), it's very haiku-like (three lines of eight, nine, and eight syllables). And like a traditional haiku, it focuses on a particular season of the year—in this case, autumn.

But whatever you can say about the style, it seems most likely that the lyric is a metaphor for middle age. The samurai—a noble warrior figure, signifying a willingness to stand and fight against forces of opposition, whatever they may be, human or otherwise—is now in the autumn of his life (or the "September of his years," to paraphrase the title of a classic Frank Sinatra album from the mid-sixties). The lyrics neatly juxtapose present ("It's not …"), past ("… as easy as it was"), and future or alternate possibility ("Or as difficult as it could be …"). It's important to note that it's not a certain future (that would have been "Or as difficult as it will be"), but rather a possibility expressed as a conditional verb. While the past and present are known factors, the future is always tenuous and unknown. So this, the lyrics suggest, is what a noble middle age is all about: knowing that youth, the years of greatest ease (at least in physical terms), are now behind you and that the most difficult years (old age) are still ahead—if you're lucky enough to have any years ahead of you at all—and standing ready to face them bravely, come what may, as a warrior prepared for battle.

This really isn't such a surprising metaphor. After all, Neil and Chris were both in their forties when they wrote this song: unavoidably middle-aged. It was only natural that they should be thinking about what middle-agedness means to them and how they should go about facing an uncertain (and almost certainly more difficult) future as nobly as possible. And could they also have been thinking of their careers: the "ease" of their peak hitmaking years as opposed to the increasing difficulty of remaining near the top of the charts? In short, the Pet Shop Boys are samurais in autumn—which the Boys themselves have confirmed. The title phrase, in fact, came from a German newspaper review of one of their concerts on the Nightlife tour, inspired no doubt by the partially samurai-inspired costumes that they wore for the first part of the show.

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