The Pet Shop Boys need no formal introduction at this point, obviously.
After nearly 30 years in the industry, the prolific British synth-pop duo — individually known as Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe — has inarguably become one of the most important, influential and continuously innovative electronic acts of all time, helping to shape the careers of many of today’s best pop, dance and electronica acts. (Oh, and they’re still pretty damn good themselves.)
The Boys’ twelfth studio album officially arrives this week, just 10 months after their last record Elysium, an introspective, largely chilled-out production crafted in Los Angeles alongside Andrew Dawson (Kanye West, Jay-Z). It’s a gorgeous record, but somewhat resigned — and now we know why.
Back in April, the group surprised fans with a major announcement: Not only were they leaving their longstanding record label Parlophone after 28 years, but they were founding one of their own, x2. And to kick off the label, they had a new album on the way this summer, called Electric.
And then, the news got even more exciting: The duo also revealed that the record was co-helmed by none other than Stuart Price, one of pop’s most reliable provider of synth-pop dreams, including Madonna‘s Confessions On A Dance Floor, the Scissor Sisters‘ Night Work and Kylie Minogue‘s Aphrodite among other masterpieces. While they’d (sort of) crossed wires once before with a Pet Shop Boys remix of Madonna’s Stuart Price-produced “Sorry” in 2006, this would be the first time the two acts would come together to collaborate in the studio.
And as it turns out, the final result is as good as it sounds on paper.
From the album’s very beginning, opening with a surging instrumental track called “Axis” (which served as Electric‘s lead single), the album maintains a consistent uptempo high, continuing to climb and explode into ecstatic heights, bouncing between both the early beginnings of ’80’s synth-pop and the pulverizing House sounds of today.
“Bolshy” offers a smooth pop transition from the voiceless pulsations of “Axis,” adding in a more polished dance floor throb and a repeat-heavy chorus, full of twinkling bells (“Bolshy, bolshy, bolshy…oh!”) And while the Pet Shop Boys aren’t exactly known for being overtly sexual, the swoon-filled track comes packaged with one of most suggestive lines on the record: “There you are, pretending you’re lonely / I don’t believe you don’t know you could own me.” It’s almost like their very own “I’m A Slave 4 U”!
One of the greatest attributes of Pet Shop Boy discography is their signature lyricism, and nowhere on the record is that cutting wit captured better than “Love Is A Bourgeois Construct” which, by its very title alone, is an instant win: Riding in on top a sample of English composer Henry Purcell‘s King Arthur (much in the same way that Stuart sampled ABBA for Madonna’s immaculate “Hung Up”), the triumphant declaration of singledom inspired by a 1980’s novel called Nice Work is as danceable as it is humorously tongue-in-cheek, suited with the anthemic chorus swells of “Go West.” “Watching the weeds in the garden / Putting my feet up a lot / I’ll explore the outer limits of boredom, moaning periodically / Just a full-time lonely layabout…that’s me!” Neil happily declares. Coupled with a massive stuttering dance breakdown midway through the song, “Love” is easily one of their finest in years.
“Fluorescent” plays like a brilliant continuation of their scathing PopArt track “Flamboyant” – a sarcastic dedication to the bright and beautiful narcissists twirling ’round and Instagramming in chic spots around the city. “At midnight, it’s time for business / But who will bear witness / To your beauty and your fame / And how well you’ve played the game?” Neil mockingly declares above a hazy, brooding beat,with all the cheerfulness of the Halloween theme.
That darker, hypnotic thump — something Stuart Price tends to bring to his productions — continues to grow more menacing deeper into the record: “Shouting In The Evening” is even borderline nightmarish, but not in a bad way: The punishing rave-tastic track, which begins innocently enough as a ’90’s House throbber, suddenly explodes into sweaty insanity in surely one of their most frantic productions to date, ecstatically slapping up against the speakers, as though a response to Skrillex and the age of dubstep.
“Inside A Dream,” on the other hand, stays true to its name, as Neil’s voice gently echoes across lush synthesizers and glittering bells (which they themselves describe as “early ’80’ish Madonna”) that stretch and shimmer across the track. “Looks familiar, feels obscene…inside a dream,” Neil innocently coos as the hypnotic pulsations dive deeper and deeper down the electronic rabbit hole.
“The Last To Die,” a cover of a Bruce Springsteen 2007 album track said to be inspired by the Vietnam War, slides into the tracklisting as naturally as any of their original songs. The brooding, blood-soaked number throbs with a cutting sense of guilt: “Whose blood will spill? Whose heart will break? / Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake?” Neil ponders. Those gorgeous chants in the background around at the 2-minute mark, especially, elevate the track into gorgeous new heights.
The track most likely grab immediate attention, though, is “Thursday,” a bell-heavy midtempo march that features UK singer-rapper Example, which feels like the duo’s most viable single for Top 40 radio — should they decide to go that route. Originally crafted around a Nicki Minaj freestyle rap (who’s founding the Kickstarter to hear that demo?), the ode to the weekend contains some of the records catchiest hooks — including a chant by the otherwise silent Chris Lowe (“Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday!”) that keeps the track firmly planted in brain. “It’s Thursday night, let’s get it right / I want to know you’re gonna stay for the weekend!” Neil declares, ushering in the weekend a day early. As he explained to Robbie at Idolator : “No one can be bothered to wait until Friday anymore!”
Consider it a more considered response to Rebecca Black‘s “Friday.”
The album draws to a close with a 6 1/2-minute opus (and current single) called “Vocal,” which was finished one day before the record was due to be delivered for mastering. Luckily, the boys got it right just in time: “Vocal” is perhaps the most straightforward, unpretentious celebration of dance music on Electric. “Everything about tonight feels right and so young / And anything I’d want to say out loud will be sung / This is my kind of music / They play it all night long,” Neil sings above the solid, House beats — an unbelievably powerful statement to close out a record by one of dance music’s most enduring pioneers.
Electric is a thundering, start-to-finish love letter to the dance floor, produced in a way that both pays homage to classic Pet Shop Boys songcraft and celebrates the future sound of clubland. The throbbing beats are perfectly modern and completely euphoric, with the kind of endlessly quotable lyricism that continues to be unrivaled in pop. While Elysium offered a dreamy sort of introspection (a la Behaviour), Electric is a four-to-the-floor companion that looks and feels like a band fully refreshed, providing just the right dose of reflection and rave.
The Pet Shop Boys, now and forever.
Electric will be released on July 15. (iTunes)