Pet Shop Boys' New Album Yes Reviewed Track-By-Track
, February 12th, 2009 05:16
We're told that 2009 is the year of glittering New Pop. But, as Iain Moffat discovers, The Pet Shop Boys won't be giving up their crown any time soon
"Don't have to live a life of power and wealth / don't have to be uniform, but it helps..." Readers of a certain age may recall that, around the time of the first Electronic collaboration, there was a general realisation that the Pet Shop Boys - then still the very essence of pop although the curtain was falling on their celebrated imperial phase - were in fact located at the exact midpoint between New Order and the Smiths. A tremendous place to be, certainly, and one the opener of their tenth album proper regularly deigns to revisit while tipping occasional nods to 'Can You Forgive Her?' (not insignificantly, the lead track from perhaps their most acclaimed work to date, the deathless 'Very) and, even amid a lyric that often, by their standards, skirts somewhat romantic territory, seems to have a pop at the oxygen-wasters that populate modern-day MTV. It's sounding better than Fundamental' already, isn't it?
'All Over The World'
Not, alas, an ELO cover (although, now we think about it, we'd still quite like to hear them tackle that at some point), but something even more exciting. Lots of "oh-way-oh-way-oh"s at the outset may hint at the demented tribalist Europop of the mid-80s, but they're soon swept aside by, unless we're very much mistaken, Chris Lowe doing The Nutcracker Suite and a whole bouncy-speakered minivan's worth of post-acid squelching, not to mention also-distinctly-post-acid positivism. Plus, there's some lovely use of synthesised strings (Trevor Horn may not be here in person this time around, but that's not to say his signatures are entirely out-of-bounds), and there's a stately air to Neil's performance that harks back to the contemplative splendour of Bilingual. Handy, that, since this is already sounding like their strongest album since.
It's the Last Shadow Puppets! Oh, alright, not really, but they have at least roped in Owen "Final Fantasy" Pallett to apply that retro patina and, you'd have to say, it's not often the Boys have sounded this 60s, and certainly not in the absence of Dusty, but there they go, quoting 'Dear Prudence', beating big Spectorly drums and contrasting some oddly reverb-tinged Tennant vocals with the delicious purity of some thoroughly vivacious violins while staring in curious awe at the Heat generation (or, since there's a palpable air of class to proceedings, more likely the denizens of Hello!). Plus: harmonica, surely a PSB first. Erstwhile collaborators Patsy and Eddie are going to love this one.
'Did You See Me Coming?'
Ooh, sauce! We're not totally in hi-NRG territory yet, but Chris has done a sterling job keeping his fingers off the space disco buttons thus far only to start falling brilliantly off that particular wagon on this inordinately sweet affair that casts Neil as perhaps a tad naive in the world of woo but a dogged and winningly puppyish pursuer regardless, not to mention a charmingly erudite one - let's not forget that this is the man that snuck "disinclined" into a Girls Aloud chorus, and he's on repeatedly engaging form here.
A bit of an oddity, this one and, in its own way, arguably the most theatrical track on the album (though there's far more flamboyance to come). Those of you who admired 'Umbrella' for its overwhelming exhibition of cognitive dissonance - really, has such open-hearted sweetness ever been delivered in such a compellingly offhand manner? - will find much to admire here, as Neil spends a lot of time bemoaning the difficulties of living in the public eye while actually appearing oblivious to its consequences, remarking on how strong he appears when in fact he's barely exercising the emotional range he's repeatedly proved capable of, and, bizarrely, noting what an angry individual he can be although he really only seems to connect as a performer and, maybe, a character when musing fearfully on the possible loss of a loved one. Intriguing.
'More Than A Dream'
Guitar! Yes, we know they've embraced their inner affection for the odd strum in the past (see 'Release, for instance), but it still comes as a bit of a shock, although at least here it serves as fascinatingly feline punctuation to a track that sees them back in Knuckles-Morales-style house territory, if somewhat updated for modern sensibilities, and revives the utopian spirit that powered their take on 'Go West' and, better still, their own 'Red Letter Day'. A work of thrilling militancy, then, but one sufficiently ambiguous to be adopted and adapted by any of the more synth-savvy types that have tugged on pop's fringes in recent times - the La Rouxs and Ladyhawkes of the world could take a happy stab at it, and just imagine Roisin Murphy at the controls...
'Building A Wall'
Well, it's about time those lovely Lowe vocals put in an appearance, although, happily, he continues to make Neil sound like an X Factor-esque warbler by comparison, adding to the air of absurdity that permeates this already-much-discussed offering. You could argue, of course, that they're dating themselves horribly by using Cold War imagery alongside ruminations on emotional dysfunction, although it's none too difficult to counter that by recalling that Tori Amos' 'China', which takes a not-dissimilar-if-geographically-relocated approach, is scarcely only ace because it's more timely. And besides, 'Yes'' pop instincts are beginning to kick in in a spectacularly healthy way by this point, and no post-millennial apoliticism should really detract from that fact. You see, say-nothing new bands? This is the sort of audacity that wins you Lifetime Achievement awards.
'King Of Rome'
You know, in spite of the colossal nature of their canon, there aren't many songs where Neil Tennant has something of the Sade about him, so this one should be applauded for that at the very least. Not to mention all the other things it's got going for it; ruddy great weeping trumpet, fabulous piano rippling, the world-weary arcane majesty of Massive Attack circa the less outright sinister bits of 'Protection', and a conclusion that fails magnificently to skimp on the haunting. Oh, and our protagonist gets to sing, "I couldn't be more tragic". Told you it'd be getting more flamboyant shortly...
And now, the Pettiest, most Shoply and, indeed, Boyish of the endeavours here, and - yet again - one that invites optimistic speculation about whether there's a particular muse at work on this album. Certainly there are a number of occasions leading up to this where Neil's discussing relationships at less of a remove than his public image might suggest, and there's an excitability to his talk of being around someone almost bullishly vivid here that goes a long way to excusing the fact that, sonically, it's one of the less adventurous moments on show. Mind you, even that may be deliberate - the critical implication has often been that 2009 is poised to be a year of new New Pop, so the Boys could just be serving notice that the era most definitively chronicled by Tennant and cohorts is still very much theirs for the plundering too.
'The Way It Used To Be'
Wherein the Pet Shop Boys take the two LCD Soundsystem albums and smash them ENTIRELY into one glorious, soaring epic that they then go and sprinkle with a captivatingly irresponsible amount of Abba during their nordic nihilist meltdown years. You don't need to know any more than that, surely? Although they've still got to follow it...
...which is where the kettle drums, Johnny Marr-arranged orchestral flourishes, and decision to stick roughly the entire history of the world into what, more than any closing track in recent years, actually merits the term grand finale all come in. We're not convinced the words "bourgeoisie" and "Carphone Warehouse" will ever appear in the same song again, nor are we sure that placing gentle bursts of Megadog-alluding techno alongside an approximation of the sunset on a western soundtrack that gets cruelly swept aside by the circus bit in French is going to be de rigeur in this or any other year, but these, and many of the other manoeuvres here, are all things to admire at the very least and, more often, simply adore. The PSBs haven't been as beatific as 'Legacy' ever, and they've not been as brilliant as Yes in years.