“They’re buggered now,” was a colleague’s recent assessment of the Pet Shop Boys. However, he wasn’t referring to Tennant and Lowe’s bedtime proclivities but the current career prospects of this most collectable and delectable of pop confections in the post-download climate. Mind you…
Coming just nine months after their equally depressive and depressing contract-filling Elysium (“music to slit your wrists to” could have been its subtitle) scraped into the UK top ten, the most consistently successful duo of all time find themselves without a major record company behind them for the first time in their long and illustrious career. And so a sidewards shift in 2013 sees them helming a new self-titled imprint – x2 being seminal synthmeister Chris Lowe’s prescient pun on DSQUARED2 and Y3, two of the label queen’s fave designer raves – and first fruit is the Teutonic twosome’s 12th studio set, an ecstatic extended dance thing intended to restore their clubland credentials, if not their commercial ones. It’s Electric.
To paraphrase one of the more clamorous cuts, not every song has a vocal, at least not in the traditional sense. Recent lost-in-the-vortex ‘buzz track’ Axis opens the album, and it’s an exhilarating boystown blend – one part “Moroder” to two parts “Kraftwerk” put through a musical mincing machine that someone left around chez “Daft Punk;” while “Shouting In The Evening” is a hyperkinetic, climactic after-hours romp that wouldn’t sound out of place on “Relentless,” PSB’s 20 year old bonus opus that’s been crying out for a long-overdue release in its own right.
The insistent dancefloor dynamism continues apace with “Bolshy.” Spookily, it’s “New Order” in the Ibizan Republic whisked up into a deft groove of euphoric sunkissed bliss, while “Inside A Dream” is cavernous and cadential, all radiophonic beatbox, blips and pips, and “Fluorescent” shines with not quite New Romantic neon lights brightening up the deep house then fading to grey with a saturnine Visagey vibrancy.
And after bemoaning the rise of the hedge-betting credit culture, the old contrarians prove they’re as cynical as the rest of them by nabbing thirtysomething rapper Example for their first track featuring a ‘featuring.’ Sounding like Arthur Baker’s got Mantronix in the kitchen, “Thursday” forges a fresh and pithy path but is possibly too consciously a pastiche of earlier PSB triumphs to break much new ground. But never quite giving up the ghost of the chance of another hit, even Neil Tennant has slyly trailed the track as “from the same group who brought you West End Girls,” the transatlantic chart-topper that was their first top ten hit back in 1985. Their last was 2006’s rather less impressive I’m “With Stupid,” which was hardly going to épater le bourgeoisie as they’d hoped.
At almost seven minutes, the brilliantly bittersweet “Love Is A Bourgeois Concept” claims the longest title, longest duration, and in the tradition of the duo’s lengthier, left-of-centre classics (“Left To My Own Devices”, “It’s A Sin”), is every bit as defiantly funny and silly (“You won’t see me with a bunch of roses, promising fidelity!”). A kooky cover of Bruce Springsteen’s anti-war paean “The Last To Die” aside, it’s also the most obviously lyric-driven track here. Tennant’s traded in drinking tea with his regulation party animal phone-a-friend – now he imagines he’s left-wing veteran Tony Benn having his daily cuppa. Whatever the tipple, it’s an insanely OTT and thoroughly English eccentric classic, and if it’s not a single I’ll eat my second-hand pink leotard.
The affair culminates with current single “Vocal,” a disingenuously generic distant techno-twin of 1980s proto-house anthem “It’s Alright;” all pulsating positivity and celestial synthstabbing over a miraculous if reductive tranceteria mix. It’s one of the most massively uplifting singles the boys have deigned to deliver for over a decade, though I just wish that every time I hear Neil intone that this is “my kind of music” I don’t have Michael bloody Barrymore in my head.
No longer at the forefront of contemporary culture, nor masters of the amusingly original titles of old (a quick Wiki looky brings up four albums already bearing the same name), nevertheless Electric is easily the most consistent PSB product for 20 years, vital evidence the pair can still turn it on when pushed and prodded (hello, famed knob-twiddler Stuart Price!). Alas, it may well be the first Pet Shop Boys album to miss the top ten altogether, which would be a shame considering their once impeccable record. But when said charts are a now such an increasingly irrelevant ecosystem with an ever narrowing gene pool, not that much of a surprise.
Electric is released July 15 through x2/Kobalt Label Services