LIVE REPORT: Pet Shop Boys

As Pet Shop Boys prepare to release brilliant new album Electric, Darren Lee sees them recapture their disco mojo at the 02 Arena, London

"Your life’s a mystery, mine is an open book" – ‘I’m Not Scared’

Through three decades of more or less unbroken success, The Pet Shop Boys have seemingly turned hiding in plain sight into an art form. Despite their lofty standing in the pop culture pantheon, part of the essence of their appeal remains Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe’s essentially unknowable nature – the sense that they give away only enough of themselves which is absolutely necessary. You get the impression that it’s partly down to old-fashioned English reserve, and partly tactical shrewdness: the recognition that in pop, enigma can be as potent a currency as charisma.

From their earliest Derek Jarman-directed live shows, they’ve sought to compensate for the lack of conventional audience engagement with a mesmerising re-configuration of the live experience as a modernist art spectacle. Their Electric tour, making its UK debut this evening to a near-capacity O2 audience, represents the most perfectly-realised incarnation of this yet: a full-on sensory assault encompassing retina-searing lasers, glitter ball headgear, balletic dance arrangements and visual set pieces ranging from the sumptuous to the vaudevillian.

Even before they’ve appeared on stage, anticipation is stoked by the iconic silhouette of the duo’s heads appearing on a giant screen at the front of the stage, as the ferocious high-NRG blast of ‘Axis’ shakes off any remaining cobwebs. As the screen collapses to reveal our urbane hosts, we’re greeted with a pulsating mash-up of ‘One More Chance’ and ‘A Face Like That’, the former making a long overdue re-appearance in their live repertoire. It’s the first of a few welcome surprises in tonight’s set, which astutely balances less familiar material from last year’s Elysium and upcoming album Electric with choice cuts from their back catalogue.  There are plenty of their trademark erudite nods, such as when a sample of Stravinsky’s score for the ‘Rite of Spring’ segues into lovelorn anthem ‘I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing’, a song which namechecks that symphony.

But Pet Shop Boys wear their intelligence lightly, so what might in lesser hands have appeared pretentious comes across as charmingly knowing. There’s humour in abundance too, such as when the bodies of topless male dancers are projected onto Neil and Chris’ heads as they pose behind vertical beds during ‘Love Etc’. Above all though, there is the unimpeachable magnificence of these tunes. So fruitful was their mid-80s purple patch, that the Pet Shop Boys could afford to toss away a song as hauntingly sublime as ‘I’m Not Scared’ to prop up Patsy Kensit’s short-lived musical career, but they reclaim it as their own here against a backdrop of hypnotic green laser beams.

Powered by one of their finest pop melodies, ‘Suburbia’s’ searing indictment of Thatcher-era disenfranchisement remains as relevant as ever. And a thundering ‘It’s A Sin’ earns a predictably rapturous reception. The new material aired tonight suggests that enlisting Stuart Price on production duties may have helped the duo rediscover their disco mojo. ‘Thursday’ is a particular highlight, a euphoric paean to living for the (extended) weekend which channels the ecstasy-rush abandon of those early Bobby Orlando demos, with rapper Example making a thrillingly boisterous cameo mid-way through. Perhaps the only off note of the evening is struck with a cover of Springsteen’s ‘The Last To Die’, which feels lumpen and prosaic amidst all the divine synth pop splendour.

Having initially appeared strangely subdued, the audience erupts into life for the show’s final act, a joyous run through of their biggest, era-defining hits, culminating in two covers of songs which the band have arguably made their own in ‘Go West’ and ‘Always On My Mind’. They encore with a stately ‘West End Girls’ – a song which still sounds like the future nearly thirty years after it was first released – and new single ‘Vocal’, a utopian hymn to the communal power of music. "Everything about tonight feels right and so young, and anything I’d want to say out loud will be sung" sings Neil, and the entire crowd break into delirious applause as if to signal their agreement.

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