Let’s start with a bit of a hatchet job: Pet Shop Boys‘ last album, 2012′s Elysium, was the dampest squib in their otherwise glittering catalogue. Reaching for the melancholy of their 1990 masterpiece Behaviour, it actually sounded more like a b-sides collection than the same year’s Format, which was a b-sides compilation. Themes and lyrics were recycled (‘Your Early Stuff’ was a less-than-witty rehash of ‘Yesterday, When I Was Mad’, while ‘Ego Music’ did the same with ‘How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously?’), its sombre tone came off as mere dinner party fodder, and ‘Winner’ – “You’re a winner! I’m a winner! This is all happening so fast!” – was the year’s most transparently calculated bid for Olympic cultural glory that didn’t involve Emili Sandé. So when the album ended with ‘Requiem In Denim and Leopardskin’ – boasting a curtain call chorus and closing with the sound of a motorcycle revving off into the distance – you were forgiven for thinking that Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe were bowing out with an uncharacteristic whimper. Not so. Thank god.
Each Pet Shop Boys album is a reaction to the one which precedes it. So Elysium usurped 2009′s Xenomania-helmed Yes, which in turn was a contemporary volte face from the Trevor Horn-produced sophistipop of Fundamental, which sought to right the wrongs wreaked by Release, best known as their “rock album” (ie: it had more guitars than a normal PSB record should) and so on. Electric works as a reaction to, not just the staleness of Elysium, but the new circumstances in which Pet Shop Boys find themselves; a new label – x2, their own – after the waning years of live albums and tacky compilations with Parlophone, and a new producer – electropop godhead Stuart Price.
It all starts with ‘Axis’, aptly named for its position at the head of such a turning point of a record – a near-instrumental, loaded with wonkily puslating keyboards, and a very relentless beat, its processed calls of “Electric energy! Turn it on!” signal a wholly unexpected new sense of purpose and direction. It would be churlish to say that this cribbing from the manuals of Herrs Moroder und Hütter once sounded like the future, but at this stage in their career, hearing Tennant and Lowe throwing out a curveball like this is…well…electric.
The album tends to follow its opening track’s template, albeit in a slightly more downbeat (but never muted) fashion; there’s the minor-key marvel of ‘Bolshy’, all Balearic piano stabs and fithy bass, or the William Blake-quoting lushness of ‘Inside a Dream’. Meanwhile ‘Vocal’, practically a never-ending chorus which has ended their current live show, is a testament to the power of perfect pop in all its mystery (“I like the singer - he’s lonely and strange/Every track has a vocal, and that makes a change”), highly reminiscent of their seminal version of ‘It’s Alright’. Much of Electric stretches out in a way that PSB haven’t done since 1999′s Nightlife, and after a run of such tightly-constructed, carefully-crafted material, it’s a reminder that once upon a time the band were, first and foremost, responsible for some great dance music.
Of course, they also rather like toying with expectations in other ways; after their indelible stab at U2‘s ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’, a decision to cover Bruce Springsteen seems like a no-brainer. Yet, their sensitive rendition of ‘The Last To Die’ (a relative Boss obscurity from 2007′s underrated Magic) seems carefully and sincerely de- and re-constructed - the original is simple enough, so the lack of embellishment works wonders here - as if it emerged from the band’s former headquarters in Neil Tennant’s Chelsea flat, rather than somewhere in the swamps of Jersey.
And then there’s ‘Love Is A Bourgeois Construct’. The latest in a long line of cribbings from classical masterworks (‘All Over The World’ doffed a cap to The Nutcracker, while ‘Go West’ based itself on Pachelbel’s deathless ‘Canon in D’), the Purcell-purloining song sounds like Pet Shop Boys in excelsis, right down to the multitracked monotone choir of Chris Lowe in the background. It’s cheeky, funny, catchy, and camp as all hell, and if anyone misses the PSB of yore, they need look no further. Tennant was born to sing lines about “hanging out with various riff-raff” whilst “drinking tea like Tony Benn” and, whilst in the eighties, Pet Shop Boys’ manifesto was “Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat”, ’Love…’ boasts the much more mature (and relatable) ambition to “explore the outer limits of boredom, moaning periodically.”
So there you have it. It took less than a year to right their last album’s wrongs, but Electric is a work of renewed purpose, whose short time-frame and scant tracklist (no PSB album has ever clocked in shy of ten songs) belie the gems that lie within. When Pet Shop Boys are as Pet Shop Boys should be, pop is as pop should be.