Review: Pet Shop Boys, Electric

Like Walt Whitman, all great bands contain multitudes. Think of The Beatles: a skiffle band, a rhythm & blues band, a pop band, and a psychedelic rock band all rolled up into one. So it is with the Pet Shop Boys – part mainstream pop, part disco/ house/ dance, part electronica, part mid-tempo balladeers. On last year’s Elysium, the band gave full rein to the last of those incarnations: it was a reflective record which explored themes of ageing and death with a measured grace. (Although there were a couple of upbeat pop songs thrown in for good measure – it was Pet Shop Boys after all.)

I (pretty much, on the whole) loved Elysium, and still (pretty much, on the whole) love it, even though it became trendy to sneer once it failed to sell as well as a PSB record usually does. But it’s not a surprise that the band have let another side of themselves out to play for Electric, their new studio album which was released this week. It’s not a surprise because that’s what PSB always do – each record is always a reaction to the last. And it’s not a surprise that they wanted a particularly dramatic shift of direction this time, given that the ‘Requiem In Denim And Leopardskin’ which closed Elysium might have been the death knell for the band themselves.

You see, in the ten months since Elysium was released the Pet Shop Boys have not just written and recorded a new record (although that’s significant enough for fans who, ever since Behaviour was released, have resigned ourselves to a gap of three years or so between new studio albums). They’ve also parted company with their record label of nigh-on 28 years, Parlophone. It’s not entirely clear what happened. Press releases at the time suggested it was a mutual decision – the label happy to concentrate on marketing the band’s back catalogue, the musicians themselves keen to strike out for new ground – but in at least one interview since then Neil Tennant has implied that it was a one-sided decision taken by the label. Either way, it helps to explain the band’s wholehearted embrace of vibrant, energetic, electrifying music on this record: as a means of signalling a new beginning, and of rewriting the declinist narrative that was being constructed around them.

If you read any other reviews and articles about this album (and you really should read almost any of them in preference to these inadequate dribblings of mine), you’re going to come across a lot of commentary along the lines of the band returning to their dancefloor roots. There’s just one slight problem with that – the Pet Shop Boys’ roots aren’t on the dancefloor, but in the pop charts. Mainstream pop and dance were perhaps closer together in the mid 80s than they are now, and there are danceable songs on their first album, but no-one could argue that ‘West End Girls’ or ‘Love Comes Quickly’ are dance music. As the band’s most dance-friendly album in decades, Electric is not, or at least not entirely, a return to their roots. It’s most obvious predecessor in the Pet Shop Boys main canon (i.e., ignoring remix albums and limited edition releases) is Introspective which, as any fan can tell you, was their third studio album, not their first.

What’s beyond question is that Electric – which was produced by Stuart Price, who oversaw Madonna’s return to dance music a few years back – is aimed squarely at the dancefloor. That’s immediately apparent from the opening bars of the opening track, ‘Axis‘.

This is, for me, the weakest track on the whole album. As virtually an instrumental, it’s a curious choice to open the album, and an even more curious choice to have released in edited form as the first ‘teaser’ to drum up support for the record. Usually I very much enjoy Pet Shop Boys’ instrumentals – ‘KDX 125′ and ‘Casting A Shadow’ are among my favourites – but for me this one never quite works. It feels episodic and malformed, as though it were stitched together from too many different elements. The album version is better than the edited teaser – the extra hundred seconds or so gives the arrangement more room to breathe and, critically, means that Neil Tennant’s slightly unfortunate spoken contributions (‘turn it on’, ‘feel the power’, etc.) are less frequent and so less jarring. Turning to the positives – and there are plenty; describing this as my least-favourite track doesn’t mean I actively dislike it – the great strength of the album opener are its inventiveness, its relentlessly forward-driving energy and the bold, declarative synthesiser riff. It also sets out the stall for the sound of the record as a whole – vintage synths blended with modern digital instruments and state-of-the-art recording techniques.

The next song, ‘Bolshy‘, is in my view a big step up. It’s perhaps the most obviously poppy track on the record, built round a bouncy chorus that manages to be as engaging as it is daft. It’s given ballast by the addition of some spoken-word Russian (thus taking the total number of languages on PSB albums up to, I believe, four: English, Spanish, French and Russian), but this is at its heart an infectiously cheerful song, with a chorus that’s far more catchy than anything this simple should be. More knowledgeable reviewers than me have said that it catches the essence of Balearic house in the Second Summer of Love. I pass that on without comment, because in the summer of 1988 I was about as far removed from such things as it’s possible to be. I was trundling up and down Rheilffordd Llyn Tegid at the happy height of my train-nerd period, and so have no way of knowing if the description’s accurate – they tend not to play the latest club sounds on the platforms of the Great Little Trains of Wales. Sorry for the lack of seriousness there, but this is the response the song draws from me – it’s a big old cheeky grin of a song, and I love it.

I can’t, I’m afraid, say quite the same about the next, ‘Love Is A Bourgeois Construct‘, which is a shame, because there’s so much about this song that’s fantastic. For a start the title, which few bands beyond PSB would risk. And it’s one of Neil Tennant’s most acutely-observed lyrics. The protagonist of the song is identified in social space with needle-sharp accuracy: a well-to-do person hanging out with what he believes to be the criminal classes, and mouthing Marxist platitudes in an affected and pretentious attempt to seem daring, but ultimately ready to run back to the lover who jilted him the instant they show willing. A thoroughly bourgeois creature, in other words, as people who spout Marxist platitudes tend to be. Musically, though, I love it less.

It’s built around a classical riff – this one from Henry Purcell – which I persist in thinking is a thoroughly naff thing to do, no matter how many times the band repeat the practice. The opening of the song, especially the way the borrowed riff is gradually faded in over that bassline, shows Stuart Price all but copying the opening to his most successful collaboration with Madonna, ‘Hung Up’. I’d also wager a tiny amount of actual cash that the song is formed out of separate strands that weren’t originally conceived as belonging to the same track: the descending minor riff that pops up periodically sounds to me like a refugee from a completely different song. There’s also the question of the song’s structure, and particularly its lack of a chorus. I’m not in any way hostile to PSB experimenting with song structure – I greatly admire ‘Love Is A Catastrophe’ and that, as well as being their other ‘Love is…’ song, doesn’t have or need a chorus. The problem in this case is that the song is put together as though it’s building towards a chorus that remains stubbornly missing, leaving a kind of gap which is filled, in an unsatisfying way, by recapitulating the Purcell riff.

But what do I know? This song seems, by overwhelming consensus among critics and fans, to have been identified as the best on the album, so you shouldn’t set too much store by what I say. It certainly benefits from exemplary production and arrangements, and it’s positively brimming with musical ideas. And, too, it’s a clever, intelligent song. That was always one of the Pet Shop Boys’ most appealing hallmarks – the way they took their brains with them when they went out dancing – and it’s lovely to see that spirit resurrected here. In fact, it’s interesting to note how closely this song adheres to what’s usually taken as the band’s manifesto for intelligent dance music, the aspiration in ‘Left To My Own Devices’ to set ‘Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat’. Ok, so in this case it’s Karl Marx and Purcell, and the beat isn’t exactly disco, but it’s an intriguing parallel nonetheless.

The next song, ‘Fluorescent‘, is, I’m pleased to say, one that I absolutely love; it’s a candidate for my favourite track on the whole album. It’s one of those classic Pet Shop Boys songs that creates a mood entirely of its own making – a mordant, vaguely threatening, late night atmosphere. It opens with a slinky bass riff, and there are stabs of hard, jagged, discordant synths that give the song its unsettling edge. Unusually for Pet Shop Boys, I can’t immediately identify a single, coherent meaning in the lyrics, and am left by the end with a sense that some deeper significance has been left opaque. Even the chorus is more allusive than explicit (‘Life’s a gamble/ Throw in the dice/ Every scandal/ Has its price’), although there is perhaps an overall sense of someone who is burning too bright to live long. This is an anxious, foreboding song, the dark side of the shiny euphoria that makes up so much dance music, but still itself unambiguously dance for all that. A strange, dark, disturbing masterpiece.

Inside A Dream‘, meanwhile, made me cry. Not because it’s a sad song, but because of the utterly unexpected moment about halfway through when the Pet Shop Boys’ classic 1980s sound – washes of synthesised strings, with a single-finger riff picked out over the top – suddenly breaks through, unblemished and perfect, as though they’d been keeping it carefully folded away in a drawer all these years. Most of the time on this record the band and their producer are engaged in a kind of complex, two-way negotiation between their own history and contemporary music, allowing the former to influence the latter and the latter to mould the former, but this is a moment of pure nostalgia: a treat for sentimental long-term fans like me. Nostalgia could be a dangerous indulgence for a band in the position of the Pet Shop Boys, since it’s hard to look back over your shoulder and keep moving forward at the same time. Luckily, this was just one moment in a song that contains much else besides. Someone coming to this record entirely fresh would just hear a bold, melodic break in the middle of a mellow, summery dance number. It’s only old fogeys like me who have the song enriched by encountering the ghosts of records past.

The Last To Die‘ is, somewhat improbably, a Bruce Springsteen song – an angry lament written in the context of the second Iraq war: ‘We don’t measure the blood we’ve drawn anymore/ We just stack the bodies outside the door’. Pet Shop Boys have a reputation for making hostile versions of other artists’ songs, when in fact it was only ever U2 that they covered in order to mock. Their other cover versions – ‘It’s Alright’, ‘Go West’, ‘Somewhere’, and so on – are always undertaken because they like the song, and feel they have something they can add to it. While I don’t know The Boss’s original well (I’ve only listened to it once, and after hearing the Pet Shop Boys’ version), I can say that’s definitely the case with this one. They’ve eased back on the rocking out, as you might expect, and drawn out the melancholy in Springsteen’s moving lyrics – the shift into the middle 8 (‘The sun sets in flames as the city burns’) is devastating.

This is, of course, a Bruce Springsteen song, and the greater share of the credit for the emotional punch it packs should go to him. But the way it has been re-imagined and re-interpreted to fit on an electronic, dance-orientated album without sounding out of place, and without selling the gravity of its subject matter short, reflects credit on the Pet Shop Boys, too. This may be a Springsteen song, crafted to suit his own musical genre and performance style, but in this version it sounds like it was written to slot perfectly into place on a PSB album: the sober, melancholic note they always inject into even their most upbeat records.

The next song, ‘Shouting In The Evening‘, could hardly be more of a contrast since it is, by my reckoning, the most hardcore dance track ever to have appeared on a PSB studio album. It’s also – and I promise this will be the only time I make this point in the course of this review – almost absurdly youthful for the co-creation of a man like Neil Tennant who is, at the time I’m writing this, 355 days away from his 60th birthday. I’d normally shy away from the potentially ageist comment, but in this case I think it’s relevant to understanding the song. Specifically, I think ‘shouting in the evening’ is pretty much the band’s declaration of intent for this record. They seem to have been determined to make an album that resisted the lazy identification of them as a band drifting gently into the quiet evening of their careers, and this is the song that makes that explicit. It’s an unusual song in the PSB canon, less melodic and less intricate than the majority of their work. The lyrics, in particular, are uncommonly brief and direct: ‘What a feeling/ Shouting in the evening’ for the melodic chorus that acts as counterpoint to the grinding, aggressive majority of the track, and then just the simple phrase ‘feels so good’, and the repeated instruction to ‘shout!’ The simplicity is not a failing, but it is unusual, and it shows the band unambiguously embracing a contemporary genre that’s far-removed from their comfort zone. I really like it – it’s among my favourite tracks – but then I’ve always loved it when PSB push into what’s new territory for them. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if some other long-term fans find it rather strong meat.

If ‘Shouting…’ was the manifesto for Electric then the next song, ‘Thursday‘ is its beating heart: the song which seems, to me, to act as both summation and culmination of everything they set out to achieve on this record – the effortless blending of a reworked version of their own history with contemporary music. The song opens sounding like their very earliest work. ‘West End Girls’ is in the blocked string chords and the staccato bass; ‘Love Comes Quickly’ is in the heartfelt, earnest rap: ‘I need some meaning/ Expressed with feeling’. Then, by way of a brief ascending piano riff that gives it an abrupt jolt of energy, the song breaks into a bridge that would sound perfectly at home on contemporary radio, before breaking again into a chorus that borrows from HI-NRG but gives it a contemporary twist. It’s been a long time since the Pet Shop Boys have sounded this much at home in a contemporary pop sound, albeit one that’s laced with something of a retro feel. They tried to get back on speaking terms with contemporary pop on their 2009 album, Yes, but the attempt didn’t quite work (thanks mainly to Xenomania’s mishandling of production and arrangement). This time they sound like they entirely belong – timelessly Pet Shop Boys and effortlessly current at the same time.

The song unfurls itself in a gloriously sequential way, each section sounding complete in its own right before opening up into the next section which immediately sounds like it was being set up all along. The last of those reveals comes when Example pops up with a gorgeous, mellow guest rap and vocal. If you forced me to be negative, then it’s a shame that Example and Tennant don’t duet on the final chorus – if they did that would be the final build to something new, whereas as it is the song loops back to an earlier segment. But that’s wholly trivial, because this song reminds me why I love the Pet Shop Boys, rather than simply enjoying them, or admiring them, or being moved by them: nobody else has ever done pop music this well, with such exquisite sensitivity to its possibilities and its shifting moods. Nobody.

The last song on the album, ‘Vocal‘, doesn’t quite scale those heights, but it’s also not the vaguely disappointing tail-out that so often closes a Pet Shop Boys album. It is, in many ways, a standalone track, more of a single than a constituent part of the album. It starts slowly and quietly, building over its entire length into something that becomes anthemic and triumphant before it finally fades out on a sustained minor chord. It sounds like what we used to, in those distant days before the terminology fractured, call rave, although it employs techniques and instrumentation that I sincerely doubt would have been available at the time. The lyric is wry, and self-aware (‘I like the singer, he’s lonely and strange’) and almost begs a reviewer to close with a creative misquotation as summary of the whole album:

This was my kind of music, they played it all night long.

Electric has been hailed by some as a triumphant return to form for the Pet Shop Boys. I don’t endorse that argument because – while I agree their form did begin to flag a little in the latter 2000s – I think last year’s Elysium marked the moment when they got it back. Of course, last year’s album was a quiet chamber piece, and this year’s is a bold, brassy re-declaration of the kind of music people expect Pet Shop Boys to make. As such, it’s a perfect record for their new beginning on their new record label – if not fully a return to the understated pop that was their very first genre, then certainly a recapitulation of their founding principles. It shows the band in their most effortless, imperious colours, and it ranks by right amongst the very best Pet Shop Boys albums.

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