It feels like the Pet Shop Boys have always been here. Well in fact, that’s probably because for most of this reviewer’s lifetime they have been, since the duo formed in 1981. Regardless of whether you’re a fan or not, one can’t help be aware of the brilliant pop moments they’ve been responsible for over the years. They’ve consistently shown the importance of pure pop, and how powerful it can be in the right hands, even if the rest of the industry doesn’t have the wit or skill to learn a few lessons from them. Employing the production skills of Trevor Horn this time around, it’s clear they want to go for a big sound, and still want to be noticed. Luckily, they still very much deserve to be.
Of course generally (traditionally, anyway) the importance of pop is transmitted through hit singles, and while their last full studio album, Release, wasn’t particularly well received, the single from their Pop Art Retrospective in 2003, Flamboyant, was a true career highlight – a shimmering, living and breathing celebration of pop. Conversely, the opening single from this album, I’m With Stupid, feels relatively uninspired and formulaic, something which the David Walliams and Matt Lucas starring video, a pastiche of iconic Pet Shop Boys moments performed in am dram style, does little to debunk. The irony of the video is that the song already feels like it’s an impression of a great Pet Shop Boys track.
It’s a shame because the central theme, that of Tony Blair’s allegiance with a certain George W, is the kind of thing we need to hear in pop much more often, even if it demonstrates how ‘message’ songs don’t always work in musical terms alone. Still, with lines like; “See you on the TV, call you every day, fly across the ocean just to let you get your way”, there’s still a lot to love here, and the song does work better once you’re in on the joke.
Like the aforementioned single, the first track also isn’t really representative of the quality to be found elsewhere on the album. Psychological is designed like a synthesised re-imagining of a Hitchcock soundtrack, but claustrophobia simply isn’t the kind of mood that the duo can really nail, and Tennant’s voice, brilliant though it can be, just doesn’t do menace very well.
An unrepresentative opener perhaps, but in another sense it’s good to get it out of the way. The Sodom and Gomorrah show is in a different class entirely, and the hyperactive warbling arpeggio intro, suddenly brings the album into sharp focus. Tennant’s sugar-coated vocal chords are back to their unmistakable best: “I lived a quiet life; a stranger to champagne. I heard about the way of life, took it with a pinch of salt…a life so easy, it intrigued me, when you called to say…Are you gonna go, to the Sodom and Gomorrah show? It’s got everything you need for your complete entertainment… and destruction”. We can’t help feeling that it’s taking a stab at banal reality television, charting the rise to fame of another talentless nobody, and as such it reminds of Peter Gabriel’s Barry Williams Show from his Up album in 2002, itself a look at the Jerry Springer phenomena.
Other political/contemporary UK cultural themes covered include immigration, on the rich ballad, Indefinite Leave to Remain, and ID cards, on the powerful finale, Intergral. “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear. If you’ve something to hide, you shouldn’t even be here”, goes the militaristic chant of the chorus. As such, it’s hard to ignore the intent that’s driven this set of songs, and perhaps ‘Poplitical’ might have been a better title for the album.
Still, while all these semantics are commendable, one of the best tracks is future single, Minimal, which is also less charged with meaning, as far as we can tell. Layer upon layer of impeccably judged instrumentation swells up around you, and if you’re not careful it will totally absorb the room you’re in. ‘Important’ theme or not, it’s fantastic craftsmanship, and leads perfectly into the touching ballad, Numb. “Don’t wanna hear the news, what’s going on, what’s coming through, I don’t wanna know, don’t wanna know” goes the verse, as it tips over into to the chorus with the line “I want to be numb”. It’s a touching song that is easy for all to relate to, and manages to be pertinently of its time, without needing to delve into specifics. Luna Park is also a beautiful ballad, and is further evidence that Lowe and Tennant don’t need to rely on the camp bombast that they’re famous for.
The Pet Shop Boys might not command the size of audience they once did, but then in the download era, who does, and who ever will again? The point is that they’re still relevant, because they’re still making brilliant pop. And it’s brilliant precisely because they’ve still got something to say, and manage to say it without forcing their sound to become something it can’t. Protest songs without the protestation, maybe, but you’ll certainly get more out of this album if you take the time to peer behind the pop sheen.
Pet Shop Boys
Record Label: Parlophone