2012’s record Elysium by the The Pet Shop Boys sparked reviews that varied in tone and critique. It was sometimes mentioned as beautifully autumnal and sad but also criticized as sounding tired and slightly bitter (often within the same review) – for me it was a record that grew in stature with each listen. I mentioned in my review that it was “not quite a masterpiece, but has some very special, very Pet Shop Boys moments.” I stand by that statement, 9 months later. I will say that one of the singles from that record – “Leaving” – stands as one of my favorite Pet Shop Boys songs of all time – a perfect embodiment of melancholy and hope. Historical revisionism is a curious thing and appears to be alive and well with the release of the latest Pet Shop Boys record, Electric. It is easy to fall into that trap when faced with a record that is a masterpiece because everything that immediately preceded its release seems dull in comparison. So it goes with the Pet Shop Boys in 2013. I loved last years record, but it couldn’t prepare me for the non-stop delight that is Electric.
Electric was produced by Stuart Price – aka Thin White Duke (no, not Bowie). He’s most famous for producing Madonna’s 2005 record Confessions on a Dance Floor but he’s also put his stamp on records by artists such as Princess Superstar, The Killers, and Seal. That’s an interesting snapshot of production credits that encapsulates everything that makes this record work so perfectly. Dance floor anthems? Check. Social commentary? Check. Modern beats? Check. Bruce Springsteen cover? Check. This is everything you’d hope for in a Pet Shop Boys record – 9 songs that hold up after repeated spins and resonate on an emotional level. The “campiness” side of the electronic duo is downplayed a bit on this record but isn’t entirely absent from the proceedings. The lyrics are of the classic Pet Shop Boys mold – wistful, yet intelligent. The words are married to a soundscape of synthesizers that cover a broad spectrum of emotions. Electric takes the duo just a little closer to heaven.
this is my kind of music (album breakdown)
Axis was a curious choice as the 1st preview of the record when it debuted, but it makes perfect sense as the album opener. It reminds me of the instrumental electronic pieces that served as interludes on the early records by the Associates (RIP Billy Mackenzie). A growing disco beat as the track progresses and Neil Tennant is barely audible saying “Turn it on / Plug it in / Charge it up / Electric energy”
Bolshy has a lighter edged piano refrain backed by an eerie synth line with spoken verses. The chorus is basically the word “Bolshy” repeated half a dozen times before it reverts back to the eerie synth tone. It’s a fairly m-i-n-i-m-a-l set up for a track but it works really well. The instrumental interlude at about the 3 minute mark adds layers of atmosphere to the tune and when Tennant’s voice returns it has layers of sound f/x which is a nice touch. Key lyrics: “Get me excited or give me a smile / I’ll wait if you say and I’ll be worth my while / There you are, pretending you’re lonely / I don’t believe you, don’t know you could own me”
Love Is A Bourgeois Construct borrows its melody from 17th Century composer Henry Purcell’s King Arthur. Bourgeois is a French word that means “characteristic of the social middle-class.” This is a vintage pop single from the Pet Shop Boys, sounding like something off of their masterpiece Very. Nuanced vocals, conveying different emotions often within the same verse. Pop electronic backing with retro sound f/x throughout. Absolutely fabulous. Key lyrics: “Now I’m digging through my student paper bags / Flicking through Karl Marx again / Searching for the soul of England / Drinking tea like Tony Benn”
Flourescent takes the tempo down a notch with the music sounding like an electronic score to a B movie of some sort. Deep on atmosphere with the beat building in urgency as the track progresses. Tennant’s vocals are in a lower register that sounds sinister and yet…like he’s holding back just a bit. Anger simmering beneath the surface? Key lyrics: “Brighter and brighter and brighter you burn / When you’re in this mood there’s no return / Life’s a gamble, throw my dice / Every scandal has it’s price”
Inside a Dream sinister Church organ type opening before moving into a an electronic…um….dream like passage. Chopped up spoken vocals (Chris Lowe is that you?) before Neil Tennant’s voice enters the mix. Aggressive, he sounds like a man possessed (that’s a good thing). The chorus is strong but the track really takes a turn for the masterful at about the 2:20 mark when a deeper beat invades the mix and Tennant’s vocals are mixed as if they are further off (dream like again. sorry). This is the track to play in your soccer mom car on a hot summer day when taking your kids out for ice cream. Key lyrics: “Driving along but some will play / Something I only heard you’d take / A new melody with such delay / The music will never fade away “
The Last to Die is a Bruce Springsteen song and it really isn’t all that far-fetched for the boys to cover this – The Boss is on record as being a fan of Suicide and even covered that electronic industrial duo’s “Dream Baby Dream”. As they have done in the past with songs made famous by U2, Elvis Presley, and the Village People they take this song and make it their own. A track ripe with words about conflict, Bruce’s familiar growl is replaced with Neil Tennant’s emotional delivery and a thumping electronic beat. Key lyrics: “Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake / The last to die for a mistake / Whose blood will spill, whose heart will break / Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake”
Shouting in the Evening opens with an eerie synth refrain that reminds me of the classic late 70’s records by Kraftwerk. It is just a brief moment as the track segues into a high energy (or is that Hi-NRG) section – disco beats and shouted words. It does return to the melodic synth line a few times which makes the whole thing work so well.
Thursday – conveying the emotion of longing for someone, lust, or even unrequited love has become a Pet Shop Boys trademark throughout their career. This track could be used as the quintessential song for this emotion – spoken interlude by Chris Lowe, catchy chorus by Neil Tennant that increases in its emotional intensity as the song progresses. A little surprise for listeners – there is a guest verse by British rapper Example which works far better than I thought it would. Classic emotional longing lyrics: “It’s Thursday night / Let’s get it right / I wanna know you’re gonna stay for the weekend / Starting tonight / Let’s do it right”
Vocal is one of the strongest tracks on the record and is sequenced last. A bold decision to be sure, but with a record this strong it comes off as a stroke of genius. Sounds a little like Depeche Mode as it fades in and Neil Tennant’s voice is given center stage. Nostalgia is strong with this track, bringing to mind those endless nights just hanging out with friends talking about music. It’s one of those electronic pop songs that the Pet Shop Boys have done throughout their career and it leaves the listener with a sense of elation. The track is built like a joyous gospel – building and building until you want to sing and dance along with the band. Key lyrics: “Expressing passion / Explaining pain / Aspirations for a better life are ordained / And everything about tonight feels right and so young / And anything I’d want to say out loud will be sung / This is my kind of music / They play it all night long”
27 years after the release of their debut album the Pet Shop Boys have delivered yet another masterpiece. It is simultaneously contemporary and retro, begging the listener to jump out of their chairs and celebrate life. Do whatever you can to pick up this record – it’ll be a decision you’ll thank yourself for. With this record the Pet Shop Boys have proved that the elixir of youth is middle-aged restlessness. I think I’ll go play it again.
Verdict: Everything Feels So Right
For Fans of: Orbital, Electronic, Madonna, Giorgio Moroder, Kraftwerk, Suicide, Associates
- Love is a Bourgeois Construct
- Inside a Dream
- The Last to Die (Bruce Springsteen cover)
- Shouting in the Evening
- Thursday (featuring Example)