Saturday, November 2, 2013

Album Review: Pet Shop Boys - Electric (2013)

There is something distinctly magical about the earliest Pet Shop Boys work. The first couple of singles were perfectly formed slices of pure in-the-moment pop. I loved that early stuff, but I wouldn’t necessarily have called myself a fan for the longer haul. The novelty collaborations with the likes of Dusty Springfield and Gene Pitney left me a bit cold, and the PSB and I parted ways some years back.

Hugely self conscious and excessively camp, the duo’s music dropped right off my radar until a few years back when I heard a cover of the Madness hit ‘My Girl’, and a pretty cool PSB original called ‘Love etc’. It felt like some of the magic had returned, and I vowed back then to check out parts of the vast back catalogue … had I been a fan, I might have got around to it. Had I been a real fan, I wouldn’t have needed to.

Fast forward to 2013, and Pet Shop Boys are back with a new album, Electric. More in hope than expectation I downloaded a copy as soon as it came out – it seemed like the logical thing to do at the time, and as good a place to start/return as any.

The first couple of times I listened to Electric it sounded vibrant and essential, and early reviewers were calling it a return to form. Several months on, my familiarity with it has led to a form of contempt, and it definitely feels like a case of diminishing returns each time it gets an airing.

The first half of the album has enough going for it to be more than palatable, with some clever songwriting (main themes: politics, art, culture) and the now obligatory PSB morsels of humour in the lyrics – particularly on ‘Love Is A Bourgeois Construct’ … though whether that humour is intentional or not is probably debatable.

The real gem arrives four tracks in; ‘Fluorescent’ is possibly the best thing Neil Tennent and Chris Lowe have done since ‘Love Comes Quickly’ all those years ago. It’s an intense Fade-To-Grey-esque thing of true beauty, and it captures all that has ever been good about these guys in one short splurge. I’d go so far as to say ‘Fluorescent’ is one of my tracks of year ... it’s certainly the standout on Electric (insert your own flare or beacon joke here).

From there, the second half of the album starts to fall away quite badly:

‘Shouting In The Evening’ cultivates lightweight dubstep textures that merely succeed in leaving the impression Neil Tennant is trying too hard.

At worst, ‘Thursday’ sounds a bit like an actual PSB parody and it features a naff rap cameo from UK producer Example. At best, it’s difficult to listen to with anything resembling a straight face.

The closer, ‘Vocal’, does have its moments, but it winds up being swamped by slightly dated techno cheese.

Tennant’s voice remains as youthful as ever (he turns 60 next year). That boyish charm first heard on ‘West End Girls’ is still there, and it’s one of the keys to the duo’s long-term success, but there’s also times on Electric when I’m acutely aware that this is an album made by two men on the wrong side of 50 … and I’m not so sure that’s such a good thing.

I guess I’ve always found PSB perfectly fine in small doses, but a little more challenging over the longer form. Perhaps that’s why they’re such stalwarts of mainstream radio ... as past masters of the perfect three-to-four minute pop song?

When they’re good, they’re very good. When they’re not, the music feels like one big campy excursion into the void.

So Electric is a bit of a mixed bag, flashes of brilliance amid long periods of same old same old ... I’ve given it a fair old workout over the past few months but I’m pretty much at the point now where I doubt I’ll ever listen to it again.

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