Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Pet Shop Boys are back with an "Electric" return and then some

2012's fine release Elysium was considered by some a disappointment.  There is much chatter that such comments fueled the 'Boys in the lead-up to the release of their latest.  Whether true or not, Electric does find them in fine form.  It is a fine way to start their post-Parlophone chapter (their longtime label since their humble beginnings in the 80's.)  There is a reason this disc posted numbers as good as their 1993 classic "Very" in the UK - it's really that good.

"Electric" can be seen as a long-after-the-fact sequel to "Nightlife."  The album that arrived immediately before "Nightlife", the latin-pop infused "Bilingual" was still well crafted Pet Shop Boys music, but some of it left folks wondering if they had lost their touch.  "Nightlife" was very much a "No, we haven't, and here's a slamming batch of tunes to prove it, now step aside" retort.  In the wake of "Elysium" - a very subdued disc, "Electric" is a rallying cry, a stomping manifesto - a reminder that the 'Boys still know how to make us dance.

Opening track "Axis" drills itself directly into your brain from the get-go - after a space-synth-drenched intro, a minute is all you have to prepare as a wall of the catchiest synth-pop 2013 has heard so far hits your ears full force.  It is relentlessly modern, yet it borrows shamelessly from the best of the past (some of the synths evoke the Beverly Hills Cop theme, for instance.)  The video for the song itself oozes bravado.  Set in front of a green-screened-in explosion of sound visualizers and smash cuts of dancers showing off their moves to the song, the PSB merely walk toward the camera with a "Yes, we're just that good, we don't even have to dance, we just strut forward as our majesty plays" swagger - and they totally pull it off.  "Bolshy" is perhaps one of the only stumbling blocks of the album as lyrically it gets a bit too repetitive.  This all ceases to matter when the gorgeous 3rd song (and second single) "Love is a bourgeois construct" kicks in.  It is a testament to their staying power and talent that Tennant & Lowe can continue writing songs about love that are by turns wry, cynical, and sarcastic - and still be doing it this well after 30 years in the business.  The mood turns a bit more towards simple grooves with the insistent, pounding "Fluorescent" - a tune that runs a little long but is still a pleasant addition given this album's overall aesthetic.

Later on, a dose of "Fundamental" era Pet Shop Boys resurfaces.  On that album they were still pop craftsmen, but it was their most baldly political disc ever, and certainly their angriest, bar none.  This ethos comes back for a brief moment with the pleasant, not-cloying Bruce Springsteen cover of "The last to die."  It takes a hard-rocking latter-day Boss cut and dresses it up in pop colors - but loses none of the bite, and none of the pained feeling of the original in the process.  Surely not what most would have expected from PSB, but they pull it off quite admirably.  In ways, it sounds better than the original (though that is owed mostly to the loudness wars-style mastering on the Springsteen version.)  One of the rare somber moments on the disc "Thursday" manages to pull off a neat trick - an established pop band adding a rap element and not having it sound forced or trite - but thoroughly fitting for the song in question.

The whole procession comes to a disco-glitter-sparkled close with "Vocal" - as fine an ode to fresh, well-thought-out dance songs as 2013 is likely to see.  It is skewed in the simpler-lyrics direction like several other tracks on this disc, yet it comes across as a latter-day mission statement even so.  The album itself appears short (only 9 tracks) yet with the length of each of these 9, it manages to hit just the right length even so.  Overall a fine beginning to this chapter of their career, and a sly, winking reminder to all comers why they are among the best in the pop world.

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