Pet Shop Boys
48:40 min • Parlophone • March 23rd, 2009
So much has been made of the Pet Shop Boys collaboration with Xenomania, the maverick and hugely successful production unit behind Girls Aloud, Texas and Saint Etienne, that the other artists which feature on the album, namely Johnny Marr, Owen Pallett and Tchaikovsky, barely get a mention.
Yes, which is their tenth studio album, indeed heralds an emphatic return to form for the Pet Shop Boys and is undoubtedly their most contemporary and accessible work for years. What comes as a huge relief is that Tennant and Lowe did not succumb to getting too down with the kids in their alliance with the Xenomania team, unlike Madonna’s ill-judged and ludicrous rapping on American Life for instance, and the soulless songs tragically proffered by her on last years’ Hard Candy.
At worst, we could have feared some immediately disposable pop mush like Alesha Dixon’s ‘The Boy Does Nothing’. It’s merciful then that the pulsating pop-synth beat of the album is innovative and relentless, and that the gems keep on coming.
The bare electro-pop of the first single ‘Love etc.’, a song eschewing the vacuous and unfulfilling consumerism surrounding us, is not really indicative of the album’s bold spirit, but nonetheless kicks off proceedings with poise. As the record unfolds what emerges is that the key to the winning formula lies in the contrast between Xenomania’s sanguine pop arrangements and the PSB europa disco melodies, which are highlighted impeccably on ‘More Than A Dream’. It starts off a dark, nu-rave track, ascending into an optimistic riff, then changing key into the subtle European disco with sweeping strings that the Pet Shops are famed for.
This instinctive blueprint also underpins the simply magnificent ‘Beautiful People’, where 60s Spector drums meet gorgeous Owen Pallett strings, and
‘All Over The World’ which begins much like ‘Domino Dancing’ only to be fortified by Chris Lowe synthesizing Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and some soaring hypnotic beats.
If the album’s common sound is mesmerizing techno-pop, then the common subject matter is not unlike any other Pet Shop Boys endeavour. Yes sees Tennant and Lowe wax lyrical about excessive materialism, inane celebrity, climate change and love. The latter theme is explored in ‘The Way It Used To Be’, a moving lament to a love lost. It features a female vocalist in the bridge that many have speculated is actually Madonna, but is in fact a session vocalist used by the Xenomania team. The mood darkens further in ‘The King Of Rome’, which is a sensual ode to loneliness, awash with heartbreaking string arrangements. This melancholy is immediately rebalanced by ‘Pandemonium’, a thumping stomper of a track, evoking their own ‘Can You Forgive Her’ and could easily be a song about Amy Winehouse and Blake Fielder-Civil’s perilous union.
Elsewhere, Johnny Marr is all over the guitar chords that open ‘Did You See Me Coming?’, but the track sits uneasy with it’s overly New Order feel. Marr proves far superior when his influence is more subtle, like on ‘Building A Wall’, which is seemingly about immigration, with Neil Tennant extolling the virtues of the past when Britain was a free country, only for Lowe to wryly comment “Who do you think you are, Captain Britain?”
The album is also available in a 2CD version which features ‘This Used To Be The Future’, a collaboration with Phil Oakey, the B-sides ‘Gin and Jag’ and ‘We’re All Criminals Now’, and six dub versions which more than warrant a listen, as they lay bare the thumping basslines and drum beats that buttress the album versions of the tracks.
The closing sing, ‘Legacy’, is a wonderful dreamscape of a track. The opening lyrics of “That’s it, the end”, the very words which marked the end of Tony Blair’s ministerium, suggests a scrutiny of his time in office and a pondering his legacy. Subtle drums and glorious trumpets are adjunct to lyrics such as “public opinion may not be on your side, there are those who think they’ve been taken for a ride”. As the song explores the optimism of New Labour forming armies from York Minster to the Firth of Forth, the listener is brought crashing back to pallid reality (Blair’s real legacy) with the line “that Carphone Warehouse boy has been on the phone, he wants to upgrade the mobile you own”. This track is superbly symbolic of their uniquely witty songwriting and Tennant’s ubiquitous deadpan delivery.
Yes is surefire proof that Tennant and Lowe are still undeniably relevant after 25 years. Fresh from their spectacular appearance at the Brit Awards, at which they celebrated their Outstanding Contribution to Music Award with a titanic Stuart Price-produced introspective of their hits, it’s certainly invigorating to see such a triumphant return from the pop alchemists. Many would argue that the Xenomania team has merely added kindling to the creative fires already blazing in the Pet Shop Boys’ camp, but in reality they have injected much-needed optimism and geniality into their music, when compared to more recent ventures, as Yes is more than testament to.