Review: Pet Shop Boys, Elysium

The last time I reviewed a Pet Shop Boys album on this blog was almost 3½ years ago, when I gave the world my views on their last studio album, Yes, and the world rose up as one and said “Oh…er…right…that’s…er…hmm…”. But since I am not one to be discouraged by spectacular disinterest, I have resolved that I will provide, undaunted and undeterred, my small dribblings of thought on their forthcoming release, Elysium. The album is released tomorrow in the UK (buy it: go on, you know you want to), but in the meantime its available to stream here. I’ve based this review on the stream, so if it turns out that’s an incomplete or alternative version of the album then I’ll look like a right chump that will explain the discrepancy.

Let’s start with some general remarks. If you look at any other reviews, or comments threads about the album, you’re going to read a lot of comparisons with Behaviour, Pet Shop Boys’ 1990 album. The comparison is lazy; people are only making it because both albums open with songs about ageing and death, and have a somewhat melancholic and autumnal feel overall. The big problem, of course, is that there isn’t a single, solitary Pet Shop Boys album that isn’t autumnal and melancholic, at least in part (even the relentlessly upbeat Very has ‘Dreaming Of The Queen’) just as there isn’t a single, solitary Pet Shop Boys album that doesn’t have at least some brisk and breezy pop (even Behaviour has ‘So Hard’). Autumnal melancholy is just one of the things they do, and songs in this mode have dominated other albums, too – 2002’s Release, for example. Behaviour may be the previous album that Elysium sounds most like, but that doesn’t mean it’s actually similar to it in any significant way. For a start – and I know I dissent from the critical and fan consensus on this point – Behaviour just isn’t very good (it’s my least favourite PSB album), while Elysium is quietly brilliant.

After the curmudgeonly grumping that characterised my response to all but two songs on Yes, it’s really very nice to be able to say this about a new Pet Shop Boys album: it really is rather good. If you were one of the tiny number of people who read my review of Yes, you’ll know one of the things that most exercised me about that album was the production and arrangement, and this is the biggest single contrast with the new album – it’s incredibly well-produced, and the arrangements barely put a foot wrong. Yes, for me, positively reeked of a hurried, slapdash approach to production and arrangement, whereas thoughtfulness and attention to detail are evident everywhere on this album. The band decamped from London to LA to work with the producer, Andrew Dawson, and it seems to have been thoroughly worthwhile. The production and arrangement on this album are such that even the weaker songs are given the best opportunity to shine; quite a contrast to the last, where the production and arrangement let down even the best songs.

Well, that’s quite enough prefatory remarks, I think. Let’s get down to the track-by-track review.

Waiting Leaving [Thanks to Fred Arlington for the correction.] This is the opening song that focusses on death – both literal death, and the metaphorical death of love. Neil Tennant (who writes almost all PSB lyrics) has lost both his parents in the last 5 years, and this has clearly had an impact on him: ‘the dead don’t go away/ They’re made us who we are/ They’re with us every day’. Musically, this somehow puts me in mind of a George Michael single, although I can’t really identify any specifics of melody, harmony or arrangement that would justify that. It would be fair to say that this is not one of my favourite tracks on the album, but it’s not one of my least favourite either. The lush, organic feel that characterises a lot of the arrangements on this album is in evidence, and this probably goes some way to explaining why I like the song more than an analysis of its parts would suggest that I do.

Invisible This is much more my kind of thing. It’s a beautiful song, managing somehow to be simultaneously austere and acutely emotional. The vocal has the typically Tennant-esque quality of an apparently cold delivery that hints at oceanic depths of feeing just below the surface. Lyrically, this is a song about ageing – specifically about the sense of being still in the present, but no longer fully of it, and of drifting gradually into invisibility as a result. A heart-achingly sad song, as pure a slice of electronica as there is on this album, and quite, quite wonderful.

Winner Oh dear: with this one we slip from the sublime to the horribly pedestrian. The major problem with this song, I think, is that it falls between two stools. If it was going to be recorded at all, it needed to be presented as a big, dumb, euphoric, anthem; in trying to give it a more sophisticated sheen to fit in with the style of the album they’ve created a track which is still too big and anthemic to work in the context of the album, but too muted and restrained to work on its own terms either. This was released as the first single from the album last month – bang in the middle of the Olympics, in fact – which gave it the feel of a cynical attempt to cash in. That said, the video, telling the story of a trans woman growing into herself as a new recruit with the London Rollergirls Roller Derby team, is really rather wonderful, and shows the Pet Shop Boys are still champions of the outsider. It’s good to be reminded every now and then that the campaign for LGBT equality doesn’t begin and end with middle-class white boys being allowed to marry (though that’s important too, of course).

Your Early Stuff Things bounce back here, I’m pleased to say, although not quite all the way back. This song is reminiscent of ‘Yesterday, When I Was Mad’ from the album Very, in that both songs feature Neil Tennant taking on the persona of a third party talking about the Pet Shop Boys, and anticipating the kind of passive-aggressive criticisms that will be levelled at them. The chorus to this song (‘You’ve been around but you don’t look too rough/ And I still quite like some of your early stuff’) is exactly the kind of thing I’ve heard said over and over about the band, so the inclusion of it on the album shows how self-aware they are. It’s also funny (well, ok, wryly amusing), and a bit of a reward for fans, showing that the band understand and share our frustration with people who claim to like PSB but don’t really get them. The danger with songs like this is that they can become little more than self congratulatory in-jokes, but in this case, the song is saved by the repeated backing vocals (‘Anyway, what’s your name?’). The lushness of their close harmonies – unusual in a PSB song – gives the track a gorgeous, seductive feel, and the melancholy of the underlying sentiment undercuts the risk of smugness.

A Face Like That This is, for me, one of the best songs on the album. Placing it after ‘Your Early Stuff’ is witty, because it does sound like some of their early stuff – specifically it sounds like a mid-80s album track. Partly that’s a result of the arrangement – there are obviously a lot of ‘vintage’ synthesisers on this track – but it’s also a result of their overall approach. This isn’t an attempt to write a serious, literate, intellectual song of the kind the band have made their own over the last 20-something years, this is a return to an earlier iteration of the band, when they were producing simple, happy, danceable pop songs. This is also a return to the past in a wider sense, a throwback to the days before dance music changed under the influence of rave culture and ecstasy, when a focus on lyric and melody morphed into a concern with beats per minute and seamless mixing between tracks. Pet Shop Boys were right in the middle of that shift, as one of the established acts that helped to bring it into the mainstream, so going back to a song like this isn’t a case of sad old men longing for their glory days before the world changed around them. It’s a nostalgic song, but not an elegiac one. It’s the band revisiting the way they used to sound for the sheer pleasure of it, and it’s simply glorious.

Breathing Space This song might not have worked – with a less sympathetic arrangement, in fact, I think it probably wouldn’t have worked – but as it stands it’s another of my favourites. As such, it’s a real vindication of the collaboration between the band and their producer, Andrew Dawson. Lyrically, there’s nothing particularly out of the ordinary, since it’s a fairly standard piece of reflection on the need to step outside the rush and hurry of the world and find some…well, breathing space. It’s a ‘stand and stare‘ song, in other words, the kind of thing that most songwriters try at some point in their careers, often without much success. What makes it work here is that it feels utterly genuine. What might have been cloying and insincere comes across as truly life-affirming. That’s partly the result of the vocal performance – one of Tennant’s most emotionally engaged – partly the result of the warmth of the arrangement, and partly the result of the fact that the song doesn’t try and oversell itself. There are vanishingly few Pet Shop Boys songs that focus on or evoke a feeling of calm contentment – this one does, and does so very well.

Ego Music This is one of those rather pointed, almost bitchy, songs that PSB come up with from time to time. Like ‘How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously?’, or ‘The Night I Fell In Love’, or ‘Flamboyant’, much of the pleasure of the song dissipates once you’ve worked out who’s being criticised. The target of ‘Ego Music’ is harder to work out than ‘The Night I Fell In Love’ (where he’s all-but named), easier than ‘Flamboyant’, and about the same as ‘How Can You…?’. I found it pretty easy to work out myself, but I won’t give my answer or my workings here so as not to spoil the fun for you – and, who knows, I may be wrong. Setting aside the ‘puzzle’ element, this is a pretty throwaway song. That’s partly the point – the song is written from the perspective of [name of facile egomaniac redacted], so it’s deliberately not very good – but that doesn’t change the fact that the song still isn’t very good. There’s still pleasure to be had here, specifically in Tennant’s acute and waspish observations, but it’s the kind of pleasure that diminishes with familiarity.

Hold On This is weird one. It’s based round a riff from a classical composer – in this case Handel – which is something PSB do semi-regularly. It’s better handled here than it was on ‘All Over The World’, but I still think it’s a pretty naff thing to do. Of all the songs on the album, this is the one that seems to have most absorbed an LA vibe, particularly in the way it radiates simple-minded positivity. Lyrically, it’s very slight – not much more than an assemblage of feel-good clichés. Musically, it manages to have the feel of something that Phil Spector might have worked on. The bottom line is that I strongly suspect this song really isn’t very good, but it’s so weirdly unlike anything the Pet Shop Boys have done before that it’s oddly fascinating. That’s how I’d sum it up, I think: inconsequential, but fascinating.

Give It A Go Another weirdly non-PSB song, although less so. It has a vaguely 60s feel, I think – not in a Beatles/ Stones/ Kinks kind of way, but the smooth, American, mildly jazz-inflected, distantly-influenced-by-Motown kind of pop that was also around in the 60s. I’m not saying that this sounds at all jazzy or Motown, because it really doesn’t – it sounds like the Pet Shop Boys’ take on the kind of smooth 60s pop that had been influenced by those kinds of music. The first part of this song is nothing special, and it only really comes into its own with the much more dramatic section that is, I guess, the chorus (although this isn’t an easy song to parse in the verse/ bridge/ chorus/ middle 8 way that can summarise the structure of most pop songs). This song is weird like ‘Hold On’, but unlike that song it’s not only its weirdness that recommends it – it’s properly good in it’s own right, even if it’s not quite amongst the very best songs on this album. The arrangement has a huge amount to do with this song working, I think, particularly in the way it allows the song to kick up in the more dramatic sections without just sounding overblown or bombastic. This could be subtitled ‘The Low Self-Esteem Love Song’, thanks to lyrics like ‘I’m not saying that you can’t find yourself someone better, but in the meantime why not give it a go?’, but it doesn’t only have that kind of kooky charm. If it has a serious point, I think it’s probably that love is what you accidentally fall into with someone else while you’re busy waiting for Mr/ Ms Perfect to come along. This song manages to be both very obviously a Pet Shop Boys song – and a good PSB song at that – and simultaneously utterly unlike anything else they’ve ever done before.

Memory Of The Future This is another of my stand-out favourites. It’s brilliant – a perfectly executed pop song that takes on a deeper emotional resonance because of its context. In the midst of songs about ageing and death, hearing someone sing ‘It’s taken me all of my life to find you’ is really very moving. Somebody said – I can’t remember who; it might even have been Neil Tennant – that the secret of a good pop song is taking a cliché and making something new out of it. That’s exactly what this does – it’s basically just a love song, the most hackneyed cliché there is, but it still sounds fresh and new. I’m worried I’m underselling this song, because it’s very hard to put it’s brilliance into words – it’s a simple thing, done absolutely to perfection, and it’s exquisite. There are reams of bands – bands that are well-respected and well-loved – that would kill to have one song this good in their back catalogue, but it can seem unremarkable when PSB do it because it’s just what we expect of them.

Everything Means Something For my money, it would have been better if the album had ended after the last song. It’s not that this is a bad song, but it’s not amongst the band’s best, and it suffers by comparison with it’s predecessor. Lyrically, it seems to be a virtual transcript of a row between a couple, one half arguing in a slightly paranoid way that ‘everything means something’, the other that ‘your sense of proportion is gone’. I think I get what they were trying to do. They wanted this to be an uneasy, shifting song that’s uncomfortable to listen to, and to some extent they achieve that – listening to the song does produce a vaguely unpleasant feeling of voyeurism – but it doesn’t really come off. Musically, there are some nice primitive synth sounds, which I’m always pleased to hear, but my conclusion still has to be that this song doesn’t really work.

Requiem In Denim And Leopardskin This song I really don’t like. It starts badly, with synthesised Tom-toms (my least favourite percussion sound), and isn’t improved by a frankly smug bass-line. I’ve read people describing this as the best song on the album, which surprises me, since I’d place it neck-and-neck with ‘Winner’ for worst; perhaps whatever blind spot makes me unique in disliking Behaviour is showing again. I’ve read rumours that this song was inspired by a real-life funeral of a friend of the band. I’ve no idea if that’s true or not, but even if the inspiration is as genuine as that, the result is what feels to me like a song-by-numbers. It’s as though the band have sat down and thought to themselves “We need a song that’s about death, but also uplifting, as a neat way to sum up the album”, and what came out the other end was this, with lyrics like ‘This is our last chance for goodbye/ Let the music play/ Shining and soaring like a requiem’. Apart from anything else, requiems don’t shine and soar – they’re sombre, reflective and ultimately reassuring, which is not the same thing at all. I really don’t like this song – I think it’s shallow, and flippant, and an unworthy end to a great album – but them I always tend to dislike the last song on a PSB album. I tell myself it’s because they try too hard to wrap things up, but maybe it’s just that I don’t ever want a Pet Shop Boys album to end. Especially not one as good as this.

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7 Responses to Review: Pet Shop Boys, Elysium

  1. Fred Arlington says:

    The first song is called ‘Leaving’, not ‘Waiting’.

    Other than that, nice review.

  2. Hi Fred, and thanks for the correction. I don’t know how I came to make an embarrassing mistake like that!

  3. Kapitano says:

    I listened through Elysium – and have no plans to do it again. It’s not especially bad, it’s just not much good.

    PSB were a synthpop dance act who occasionally did synthpop ballads. Their first three albums were all quite dancable and up-tempo – with one or two tracks each that were intelligent, reflective, softer and slower. ‘Behavior’ had an overall softer sound, but was still unambiguously dance music. ‘Very’ was harder again, ‘Bilingual’ softer again.

    Actually it was with ‘Bilingual’ that I realised I wasn’t so much a fan anymore. I bought it, took it home…and didn’t feel the need to play it immediately. But I enjoyed ‘Yes’, and still have ‘Alternative’ and the four ‘Disco’s in easy reach.

    I think the trouble with ‘Elysium’ is that there are too many other bands doing synthpop ballads now, which was not true a decade ago – and they do it better than PSB. Ironic, as they tend to be inspired by PSB. Peter Heppner and Seabound, plus Colony 5 and Mr Jones Machine in their most recent albums, have all turned out out well written, smart, well produced tracks that appeal to synthheads like me, songwriting geeks, and ravers chilling out in the blue room.

    This is something that I think almost inevitably happens to innovators in pop who hang around long enough to see their own early work inspire a new generation. They sound like bad pastiches of bands they inspired, and when they move on to a new sound, they find it’s already been colonised by other bands they inspired, who took it in a different direction.

    That, perversely, might be the sign of lasting influence – being eclipsed by one’s own descendents.

  4. So, to summarise, Kapitano: you still quite like some of their early stuff? ;o)

  5. Kapitano says:

    …and at 58, Neil Tennant certainly doesn’t look too rough.

  6. It’s difficult for me to digest your comments, given your disparaging remark about “Behaviour,” which is clearly PSB’s best album (and by a long shot). Nevertheless, this was a well-written review. I don’t agree with all your comments (particularly about the last two songs, which are my favorites), but I appreciate the comprehensive review. Cheers!

  7. Pingback: Review: Pet Shop Boys, Electric | Aethelread the Unread

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