Pet Shop Boys
49:12 min • x2, Kobalt Label Services • July 15, 2013
John Preston reviews
‘Return to form’ can sometimes be a cruel phrase. It’s usually applied to an artist following a long period of experimentation and self-expression (which is largely regarded as a failed experiment) who then decides to finally ‘give the people what they want’, despite the artist in question having (at last) found their true creative voice. It’s also a phrase which has been overused in association with the Pet Shop Boys over the last decade or two. For these reasons I’m reluctant to use it here as initially Electric, their 12th studio album, feels more like one of their semi-regular ‘Disco’ excursions rather than a new album proper. There are only 9 tracks, 2 of which are instrumental with almost all playing at at least 5 minutes long. And there are no down tempo songs, although there is a ballad. But it’s much more than that. These are all new compositions, not remixes, and bears closest resemblance to 1988’s Introspective, which was an exceptional collection of long-play, brand new dance orientated songs. Electric also contains some of the most distinctively Pet Shop Boys ‘type’ songs the duo have released in a very long time. With Stuart Price’s bombastic, detailed and hugely gratifying production, this is an album that will see fans who have drifted from the fold instantly and overwhelmingly connect with.
‘Axis’, an extended instrumental intro, sounds very much like of a mid-eighties TV theme – something butch, as imagined by Bobby O and Harold Faltermeyer. It’s warm and full sounding and is where the album title is taken from. ’Bolshy’ follows, with its emphasis on the Russian Bolshevik, and is the track which really launches the album with its house piano, familiar melody patterns and sarcastic attitude. At the midpoint the vocal track sticks on the ‘O’ of Bolshio and a familiar cowbell sticks to the beat as acid house squiggles start to spiral out and take over. ‘Love Is a Bourgeois Construct’ could make one fear that the album is peaking too early, but it’s an unwarranted concern. With a filtered intro, very much like Madonna’s ‘Hung Up’ (also produced by Price), strings soar before a twee, archetypal British sample floats around, and then thump, we’re off. Like the best tracks on Electric, ‘Bourgeois’ has a twin with an earlier Pet Shop Boys classic and in this case it’s the mighty ‘Left To My Devices’. If it doesn’t quite match the level of brilliance of that track then it comes pretty close,
I’m exploring the outer limits of boredom,
Just a full time lonely lay about, that’s me –
is Neil Tennant’s admission as, in a heightened version of himself. He manages to refer to Tony Benn and Karl Marx, as well as using the word schadenfreude, all in the same song. A male choir crashes in a la ‘Go West’ and it’s this one track that both grounds and dictates the overall sound and scale of Electric.
‘Fluorescent’, one of the best tracks, is moodier. In a minor in key, with an ascending synth melody that constantly threatens to turn into ‘Fade to Grey’, it contains some of the best lyrics on an album packed with them:
I can’t deny you’ve made your mark
With the helicopters and the occasional Oligarch …
Every scandal has its price –
It’s one of Tennant and Lowe’s favourite themes: international glamour and the clandestine lives lead in the nighttime. Electric’s non-ballad, ballad is the thumping, squally ‘Last to Die’, a cover version of a Bruce Springsteen song which I’ve never heard before but here sounds very much like a Pet Shop Boys original; pompous, sad, sincere and just a very good pop song.
Aside from ‘Bourgeois’, the two very big hitters are saved until last. ‘Thursday’ is essentially ‘West End Girls’, sonically definitely, with Chris Lowe’s monotone chant of ‘Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday’ leading into a brilliantly realised, working-class, blokey rap and middle eight by Example. Listen to the way he pronounces ‘memories’ for example; it’s in the details.
‘Vocal’ is the most euphoric and obvious track on Electric and plays to many of the clichés of the current EDM craze with its big, cheesy, rave hook which is straight from 1999, see in particular Felix’s massive anthem ‘Don’t You Want Me’. But it’s the combination of the audaciousness of this sound coupled with the themes of nostalgia and narcissism, and also the subject of music itself that makes it such a success.
I like the lead singer, he’s lonely and strange …
It’s in the music, it’s in the song,
And everyone I hoped would be here has come along –
It’s moving and it has a 30 year career intrinsically worked throughout. It works on several levels, you can jump up and at the same time it will leave it’s mark somewhere deep.
So in 2013 the Pet Shop Boys sound an awful lot like they did whilst they were at their peak in 1988 and it appears as though it’s very much business as usual after it was strongly hinted that the business was about to close down completely (last year’s ‘Elysium’). You could argue, and many will claim, that it’s the inevitable ‘Return to Form’ but the Pet Shop Boy’s form should not really be called in to account – all their releases have merit, just in varying degrees. Their decision to make this album now seems like a natural one; the whiff of cynicism not detectable. In Stuart Price, Lowe and Tennant have found a producer who sounds like the third (lost) member and on Electric he has delivered his most on the money, consistent production to date on some of the most accessible and immediate songs the duo have written in years. Whether or not it buys new, younger fans, is debatable and it will remain to be seen. But there are enough people who will rightly adore this sparking, intelligent and brilliant pop record who will feel as though this album was made especially for them.