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First impressions: Pet Shop Boys – Electric



Pet Shop Boys have spent the new millennium by largely avoiding being Pet Shop Boys. The span between 2000 and now has seen the release of four new proper Pet Shop Boys studio albums, and out of those three only 2006‘s Fundamental has felt like one. 2002’s underrated Release was a reversal of the typical rock bands going electronic -trope with a synth pop duo going more ‘organic’ and (pop/)rock, 2009’s Xenomania-produced Yes sounded like a Xenomania album that minorly featured Pet Shop Boys, and last year’s Elysium was the low point of the duo’s entire studio album run, with its tired and often confused songs having very little of the usual Tennant/Lowe wit or craft. The increasingly long gaps between albums have been filled with soundtracks and other miscallenous projects where our heroes have escaped their usual roles as synth pop artisans. It’s not been a bad run of albums at all, but it’s been a confused one – the Boys searching for their role in the new millennium and trying their hands at many things, often to the point of disguising themselves in the process.

Electric continues this year’s curious trend of albums quick follow-ups to last year’s albums (see also: Sigur Rós, Pariisin Kevät, PMMP…) and much has been made about its decidedly different tone to its predecessor. Where Elysium was all calm tones and soft sounds, Electric is a nine-track high energy club stomper.  While I’ve never been one who believes that Pet Shop Boys have always been a dance act by heart, there’s a sense of belonging on Electric: it sounds like the most self-excited, inspired and downright PSB-esque thing in many years. Part of it is because of how utterly self-referential it is an album: love letters to Russia (“Bolshy”), heavily reworked covers (“Last to Die”, originally by Bruce Springsteen), Chris Lowe vocal cameos (several tracks) and building blocks taken out of orchestral works (“Love Is a Bourgeois Construct”) are all very positively familiar PSB trademarks. “Thursday” even sounds like a long-lost early 80s Pet Shop Boys track reworked to the modern age, complete with the almost naïvely simple yet effective melodies and Tennant’s hushed speak-singing.

But Electric isn’t a nostalgia trip or succeeding in past glories. It’s a brand new Pet Shop Boys album with an overall sound of its own and its strengths rely solely on its songs. Each song sounds like a victory run and a creative rebirth, with both Tennant and Lowe sounding more in touch with their own strengths than they did in the past few albums in total. With “Axis”, “Love Is a Bourgeois Construct” and “Vocal” they’ve also managed to score three of their most incredible songs in recent memory. “Axis” is a furious italo-influenced pseudo-instrumental rollercoaster that’s so impressive it deserves its place in the glorious PSB singles canon despite its lacking vocal parts. “Bourgeois” is a song only Pet Shop Boys could make: a sophisticated dance pop tour de force built around a piece of classical music, highly lyrical and witty in its words and bursting with ingenius hooks. “Vocal” takes the now-generic sounds of the 2010’s dance fad and makes them sound fresh again as the duo use them to create an anthem that’s simultaneously a love letter to dance music as well as a strikingly melancholy or wistful visit to precious memories and the moments that make them. There’s nary a miss in the tracklist and even the more outlandish experiments have their firm place: “Shouting in the Evening” in particular sounding exactly like the sort of song that was born to be dismissed with its mental musical maneuvers and effects-heavy vocal clips, but there’s a particular kind of excellence to its frentic madness that nicely separates it from the rest.

I have a deep loathing for the phrase “return to form” but if there’s a place for it, it’s cases like Electric. This is Pet Shop Boys returning to rely on their strengths: it’s filled with brilliant hooks and clever craftsmanship, is proud of its own sophistication and wit and isn’t hiding away from itself. “This is my kind of music”, Tennant states on “Vocal”, and he sounds like he means it.


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