Pet Shop Boys, Electric
Balancing gravity and effervescence, self-scrutiny and escape, sorrow and elation
Every artist who sticks around will have their output sorted into two categories: works that conform to the defining characteristics of their dominant style, and works that don’t. Arguably the world’s most self-aware pop act, Pet Shop Boys have preemptively done much of the sorting themselves, giving their albums names like Very and Fundamental, as in Very Pet Shop Boys. Recorded with hip-hop knob-twiddler Andrew Dawson, last year’s Elysium might as well have been titled Not Enough and Too Much, as it combines some of the duo’s lightest and least dance-inducing rhythms with lyrics that either revealed little of Neil Tennant’s trademark wit or laid it on so thickly that they suggested self-parody.
Co-produced by Madonna/Killers collaborator and obvious PSB acolyte Stuart Price, Electric began as a project featuring songs deemed too dance-y for Elysium and then evolved into a full album of mostly lengthy cuts akin to the duo’s clubbiest discs like Introspective or Disco. Its first track and single “Axis” feeds its minimal poetry through various vocoders; its last track and second single, “Vocal,” conversely comments, “Every song has a vocal and that makes a change.”
The seven songs in between are mostly quintessential Pets, which is to say they balance simultaneous opposing qualities of gravity and effervescence, self-scrutiny and escape, sorrow and elation, hope and resignation. Many pick up on previous themes: “Bolshy” continues Tennant’s Russian obsession; “Love Is a Bourgeois Construct” sets a classical-esque synth riff to a lyric in which the singer turns his back on love. He does it with comical finality until its last line, in which it’s revealed that of course he’s still carrying a torch; the result is a Eurodisco cousin to analytical ballads like “Love Comes Quickly” and “Rent.”
The sounds similarly reference the duo’s various stylistic stages: “Thursday” evokes the pair’s earliest bells and electro-funk beats; “Shouting in the Evening” suggests their more aggressive, Chris Lowe-lead techno B-sides. The most remarkable cut, “The Last to Die,” continues their tradition of borrowing material from unlikely sources. Here they tackle a Bruce Springsteen anthem most likely written about the Vietnam War. Packed with references to blood, folly and heartbreak all retrofitted here with dark disco drama, it now feels like the latest in the duo’s tradition of elegies mourning those lost to AIDS. Of all the very PSB-sy songs here, this is the PSB-sy-est.