Pet Shop Boys: Electric (x2)
I was hesitant to include Pet Shop Boys here since they are such a pure pop outfit, but they’ve always been pretty close to my heart. What a relief, then, that Electric is easily the best thing the duo have crafted in 20 years. The duo left Parlophone after Elysium, an album that didn’t particularly shine for me, to start their own x2 imprint, and their first effort on their own is a strong one. My first real love of their music came with the combo release of Very and Relentless in 1993; I especially liked Relentless’s club slant, with many tracks either instrumental or minimal on vocals. Electric similarly motions toward the dancefloor, but it also emphasizes the strengths of their songwriting and pairs them with Stuart Price’s sterling production. Indeed, anyone familiar with Mr. Price’s work (Les Rythmes Digitales, not to mention producing high-profile albums by the likes of Madonna, Seal, Killers, Scissor Sisters) will not be surprised by the shimmery, shiny surface of this music, but he also appears to have brought out the best in the Boys. Some of Electric’s success is due to its brevity: nine songs, NO ballads. The latter is a real coup for Price, in my opinion, as PSB seem to weigh down progressively longer albums with more and more balladeering. Not the case here; right out of the gate, “Axis” is a shimmering, Moroder-esque jam with almost no vocals. It’s a full-on italo-disco anthem complete with synth trumpet lead and big, strident stadium chords. The album sports a couple Very-esque jubilant hi-nrg pop tracks, particularly “Bolshy” and “Love is a Bourgeois Construct,” the latter of which is perhaps the most complete convergence of PSB ideas old and new. It makes smart use of a Michael Nyman sample (from the score to Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract) and weaves it into a classically bouncy synth-pop tune with smart twists and turns, not to mention on-point lyrics from Neil Tennant. It’s one of the most fully formed songs on the album and alternately corny, delightful, and smart. The other most solid track is “Vocal,” which brilliantly closes the album. It’s a perfect pop anthem, Tennant’s lyrics a love letter to vocal pop music, and Price’s arrangement sporting an unabashedly hands-in-the-air eurodance chorus hook. Elsewhere, it’s nice to hear PSB throwing back to their 80s heyday, with sonic nods to their history in “Thursday,” a fresh take on the buoyant pop of Please or Actually. or “Inside a Dream,” a fantastic pop tune with a killer bassline and a dense refrain that recalls the strength of an old hit like “Heart.” Even their choice to cover Bruce Springsteen’s “The Last to Die,” one that could have gone horribly wrong, seems to fit in just right next to something so firmly dancefloor focused as “Shouting in the Evening,” the latter being the closest thing to a straight-up club track on the album. Rumor has it that this might be the first of a trilogy of albums from PSB along these lines, and we can only hope. It’s the most solid showing from them in ages, and I can’t get enough of it. How refreshing to hear Pet Shop Boys still going strong in the same year that OMD resurfaced with their rather outstanding English Electric album. Both play to each group’s strengths, but with Electric, Pet Shop Boys strongly contend for my favorite album of 2013. If the two had something to prove, they’ve done it, and then some.