Last fall Pet Shop Boys did something I never thought they would do. They made an album that let me down. Elysium was a downbeat affair. While the Boys had done mellow before on Release, this was different. Aside from a couple of tracks like “Leaving” and “Invisible”, they were… yes, being boring. How could this happen? Especially as highly as they spoke of the sessions that went into the album. I tried to give it a few listens, but I couldn’t get into it. PSB has always had an urgency that grabbed me with every new album and song. While the group has been one of my constant favorites throughout my life, I couldn’t in good conscience put it in my top albums of the year. Then after the album didn’t take hold with the public, the Boys announced a new album.. again! Two in one year? That rarely happens from any group these days (shush Rihanna! you don’t count!). Would this album be the Anti-Elysium? Then the Boys released a video to YouTube of the opening track, a mostly instrumental called “Axis”… more or less a theme track for their new album Electric. PSB got excited again (and I got excited too).
Now the finished product is in our hands. It could have been called Sorry. or Apologies. or… you get the idea. The album is only nine tracks long, but all nine are better than anything on Elysium. The group worked with Stuart Price, famous for his work on The Killers’ Day & Age and Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor, amongst his many great remixes as Jaques Lu Cont and The Thin White Duke. “Axis” kicks the album off in grand style. The only real vocals are a robotic “electric energy” line that gets repeated. the work underneath is classic PSB. It was bold to technically release this as the first single and video, but somehow that worked.
Track two, the first with real lyrics is “Bolshy”. That’s a Russian term and I had to look that one up. If A Clockwork Orange was any indicator, it simply means “big”. Urban Dictionary describes it as assertive or pushy. Either fits the lyrics. The track has a shuffle to it, classic vocals from Neil Tennant, and definitely recalls shadows of their 80s club based tracks without sounding rehashed.
Next is what I consider the masterpiece of the album, “Love is a Bourgeois Construct”. The intro definitely shows Price’s touch, recalling a style he used for Madonna’s “Hung Up” except for one major detail… this is Pet Shop Boys. The lyrics are some of Neil’s best. The melody does a strange thing. It doesn’t always end on the note you expect it to, keeping you slightly jarred to keep your ears peeled. The synth horns and big choir ending recall past glories like “Go West”. Giving up on love never sounded so joyous.
The nice thing you’ll notice is that the songs on this album all employ various styles while staying electronic and within the realm of dance music. “Fluorescent” takes a darker turn. It has a wobbly keyboard refrain, some creepy undertones to the chords, and sounds like one of their classic b-sides that actually got album placement. For those that don’t know what I mean, the group has some great songs that were b-sides only because they didn’t fit being a single or fit an album vibe. Check out “We All Feel Better In the Dark” to see what I mean.
“Inside a Dream” starts with some minor chords that make me think it will be a droning sad song, then it stops and jumps into an energetic club beat. This one surprised me when it switched to faster pace and is actually a really good track. “The Last To Die” is a cover of a Bruce Springsteen song. Yes, you read that right. It is also one of the strongest songs here. PSB reconstructs this into a gorgeously played upbeat track with a throbbing pulse, but with a very serious and apparently post apocalyptic tale being sung over it. This is a place where the Boys have always shined.
“Shouting In The Evening” follows. This is a heavy dance track, which has throwbacks to big rave style club tunes, but with a heavy dance synth production that doesn’t sound quite like anything I’ve heard recently. The lyrics are very minimal, but effective. Definitely a standout track. Chris Lowe makes a rare vocal appearance here, saying “I feel so good”.
Next is “Thursday”. This is the one that is definitely not like the others, and is my second favorite track. It recalls touches of the club mix version of “West End Girls”, “Paninaro” and “You Know Where You Went Wrong”. Chris on vocals again! That makes 2 of the maybe 5 or 6 times in their career. And then there’s a rap section (?!?) provided by English rapper Example. And it fits perfectly. There are so many Friday and Saturday songs, but where’s the Thursday songs? Thanks Pet Shop Boys.
Finally is the second single, or the first single with a proper physical release I guess, “Vocal”. Unfortunately this song is one of my least favorites. Mainly due to what sound like very tossed off lyrics by Neil like “Every track has a vocal, and that makes a change”. Change from what? Songs without vocals? I’m assuming the song is a throwback to early 90s rave, as exhibited by the video. I guess this one just perplexes me. Also I wasn’t too big on this type of synth line in tracks back in the 90s. I may be the odd guy out on this one, as I’ve heard others love this track. And it’s still better than anything on Elysium. And it’s starting to grow on me anyways.
Overall, this is a very strong Pet Shop Boys album. I’m so happy that they didn’t keep trying to make Elysium happen when it clearly wasn’t going to and moved on to this. This is my kind of Pet Shop Boys… the marriage of the club and the lyricist. Decades have gone by and yet so few have figured out their winning formula. Thank goodness they are still here to bring it to us as only they can.
Check out some videos and songs from the album:
“Love is a Bourgeois Construct”