Undertow

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2016
Original album - Super
Producer - Stuart Price
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - single (remix)

The word "undertow" most commonly refers to a strong underlying current of ocean water, flowing in a different direction from that of the water closer to the surface. (The terms "riptide" and "rip current" are sometimes erroneously used to refer to much the same thing, although there are technical differences.) Undertows are notoriously dangerous to swimmers, sometimes suddenly and unexpectedly pulling them under. As a result, ocean drownings are often attributed to undertows.

The undertow referred to in the song is, sure enough, an extended metaphor for being "pulled under" by love—or at least sexual desire—into a relationship with someone who somehow represents danger to the narrator. This danger may be attributed to that other person's personality and/or the narrator's own personal circumstances: "I cannot escape this fate / It's my approaching doom."

Maybe the object of the narrator's desire is a "bad boy" (or, for that matter, a "bad girl") who causes trouble or even poses physical threats to others. We've all seen instances of this: friends or relatives getting involved with people best avoided. I personally think this is the most likely scenario for this song's narrative. On the other hand, it's quite possible that the narrator himself is the more dangerous character—a "stalker type" who sees that aspect of his personality being brought to the fore by his desire for another person. In that sense, even an innocent potential victim represents a "danger" to him as he recognizes his pathological tendencies being brought to the surface, seemingly beyond his control. The "undertow" wouldn't be just love or desire itself but more the darker aspects of his own personality. Does this song, then, express the narrator's rationalizations of his pending behavior?

In February 2017 it was announced that a special "bonus" CD featuring remixes of "Undertow," "Burn," and (somewhat incongruously considering its vintage) "Left to My Own Devices" would be included with the release of the Boys' hardback publication Annually (2017). The packaging for this special release, however, seems to focus on "Undertow." It would also be later included on a four-track 12-inch vinyl single. Does this all mean that "Undertow" can be considered the fourth single from Super? At a period in the history of popular music when the lines of demarcation between what does and doesn't constitute a "single" have become extremely blurred, I suppose it only remained for the Pet Shop Boys to call it one. And they have, though clearly it's meant strictly as a dance-club single. Seeing as how it's strictly in the dance clubs (at least if you don't count their most dedicated, hardcore fans) that they still find success with singles in the 2010s, it makes perfect sense.

Mixes

Officially released

List cross-references