Were Pet Shop Boys a wider known presence in America, they’d likely be on the verge of over-saturation by this point. Since 2009, the electronic duo of Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant have produced three studio albums, a live concert DVD, a ballet, and an anthem for last year’s Olympic Games (the latter falls above Muse’s “Survival” but below Future of the Left’s “Failed Olympic Bid” in terms of quality; my there really were a lot of “anthems” last year, weren’t there?). That P.S.B. can come off all of that and still produce an album as good as ‘Electric’ is impressive in its own right; that such a streak of output should come over 25 years after the group first formed is an absolute marvel.
‘Electric’ was billed from the start as a departure for Pet Shop Boys, an embracing of a modern dance club sensibility over their longstanding penchant for electronic infused pop ballads. The transition really is striking: where their last album, ‘Elysium’ (just a year ago, mind), felt very much like an 80’s group operating in their comfort zone (very well, mind you), this new set of songs is potently alive, feeling more like a new group embracing retro vibes. Pet Shop Boys’ willingness to eschew lyrical density is what really pays dividends here: album starter “Axis” is virtually an instrumental, what words there are feeling more woven into the pounding wall of sound. The track is swooping and epic, which has the added bonus of really establishing ‘Electric’s’ sonic range when “Bolshy” comes around the corner.
The dark undercurrent of “Axis” is given a glam pop sheen on “Bolshy,” said title meaning one of a revolutionary or radical stance. The bolshy in question is apparently of the romantic sort, with Tennant singing “You don’t know you could own me” in praise of her allure. That’s certainly a more complementary sentiment than “You don’t know your beautiful,” with none of 1D’s shoddily masked egotism. In fact, with “Bolshy,” Pet Shop Boys put forth another impressive endeavor: showing all those newcomer musical artists out there how this stuff is really done. “Love is a Bourgeois Construct” is a synth-pop gem straight out of the 90’s, so witty and giddy (the swell of the baritone chorus on the bridge is as sweet as guilty pleasures get) that you wonder why the genre never stayed afloat in the mainstream. The real triumph comes on “Thursday,” where Pet Shop Boys do the unthinkable: construct a version of Rebecca Black’s “Friday” that’s not only great, but insightful into the actual relevance and excitement of weekends.
Pet Shop Boys’ reputation as synth-pop innovators goes hand in hand with their stature as ironic satirists (see Elysium’s “Your Early Stuff”). Though that tendency goes largely unindulged here, there’s a bit of initial bite to “The Last to Die,” the answer to the question “What would happen if you made a dance track out of a John Kerry quote?” The lyrics are vague enough to convey more of a romantic target for the question, and politics aside, it’s a darn good track in its own right. Regardless, it’s hard to dwell on subtext when the next song is as wild as “Shouting in the Evening.” Seriously, it’s like a bro-step remix of “Hamster Dance” with Will.I.Am fighting for control of the sound board. It’s ‘Electric’s’ shortest track, but dang if “Shouting in the Evening” doesn’t leave an impression.
‘Electric’ finds Pet Shop Boys thriving on the principle of purposeful variety. Typically, electronic acts, especially of the modern House and Trance varieties, can get away with repetition in the name of immersion. By holding onto their core pop ethics, P.S.B. have made a lush sounding album that orients the listener with definite landmarks in the sonic landscape. That “Vocal,” the lead-off single, should be the last song on the album is appropriate in that it’s also the most conventional. With “Vocal,” we’re able to look back over everything we’ve traversed through ‘Electric’ with a deeper, fonder appreciation.