[20 April 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Can you mark the moment your favorite band passed into irrelevancy? To support their 2002 album Release, Pet Shop Boys appeared live on American TV’s The Today Show Summer Concert Series. I happened to see that performance. It was sad.
Not for the music itself. The couple selections from Release sounded good, actually. It was the context; performing on The Today Show was not itself a sign of obsolescence. That year, no lesser stars than Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, and Dixie Chicks played the show. But seeing Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, once arch purveyors of forward-thinking pop music and quick-witted court jesters of the music industry, running through “West End Girls” for an audience of overly-enthusiastic stay-at-home-moms and indifferent businesspeople implied a sort of defeat. Granted, even then Pet Shop Boys had not been much more than a cult concern in America for a decade. But do cult acts play The Today Show? Pet Shop Boys had entered the badlands that only faded stars can occupy. It was over.
Tennant and Lowe seemed to recognize as much. In 2003 they released the “don’t forget us!” career anthology PopArt, which served its purpose as a reminder they were one of the best pop acts of the 1980s and ‘90s and could hold their own in the 21st Century, too. Then they made the “return-to-form-with-the-old-producer” move with 2006’s Trevor Horn-helmed Fundamental, notable mostly for the desperate circumstances of its conception. They engaged in theater projects that detracted attention from the fact they had lost their grip on the popular consciousness and implied they were beyond such concerns, anyway.
But they weren’t. If the rare glimpses of candidness over the years have taught us anything about Pet Shop Boys, it’s that Tennant, a former music journalist, watches the charts like a hawk. He reads the reviews. Cult hero status doesn’t suit him, or Lowe.
Recent years have seen veteran acts paired with hip, teenybopper-friendly producers, in search of younger audiences and renewed commercial and critical relevancy. For the most part, these hookups have failed miserably. Nate “Danja” Hills, Justin Timberlake, and Timbaland conspired with Duran Duran to turn Red Carpet Massacre into career suicide. Timbaland next lent his not-so-golden touch to Chris Cornell, whose Scream seems destined for perennial “Worst Albums of All Time” appearances. In this light, Pet Shop Boys’ decision to team with Brian Higgins and Xenomania for Yes effectively put them all-in.
In America, Xenomania may not mean much. However, the Higgins-helmed production team is currently one of the hottest in the UK. Its run of hits with Girls Aloud, in particular, has generated comparisons to the 1980s chart domination of “pop factory” producers Stock-Aitken-Waterman.
You could be forgiven for fearing Higgins would kill off the last bit of Pet Shop Boys’ regality, smothering it with dance beats and bubbly production. But, in a somewhat shocking turn of events, the paring has actually achieved its goal…and then some. Transcending rote “return to form” clichés, Yes is one of Pet Shop Boys’ best albums ever.
Yes takes Pet Shop Boys’ trademark synth-pop intelligence, strips it down, and then redresses it in contemporary clothes. The beats are a bit heavier, more chunky. The arrangements are a little simpler. The lush strings and synth pads you remember are still in effect, but they no longer dominate. The dance numbers don’t just rely on that percolating “dugga-dugga-dugga” bass line from “Opportunities”. In short, Yes sounds fresh, dynamic, and vital, while paying plenty of respect to Pet Shop Boys’ storied career.
This would all be of marginal importance were Tennant and Lowe’s songs not so good, so sharp. For a band that has been skewering the E! News lifestyle since before E! News existed, lead single “Love, etc.” is a new highwater mark. From the start, the simple beat-box rhythm and dreamy synth hook evince Higgins’ involvement. The call-and-response chorus and Tennant’s ruthless wit provide the type of familiarity you hope for. Coming from these guys, lines like, “Don’t have to drive / a supercar to get far / don’t have to be / beautiful but it helps” aren’t just catchy. They’re an admonishment.
Things don’t get any less brash or confident. Employing Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite on “All Over the World”, easily the album’s most “crunky” moment, could have been an embarrassing mistake. But Tennant and Lowe buy that bit of indulgence with an absolutely irresistible chorus. It’s as if Higgins has helped Pet Shop Boys re-discover everything they’ve done best throughout their career and then create new career highlights out of it. Stark, minor-chord mood pieces “Vulnerable” and the stunning “King of Rome” recall the sincere, lovelorn introspection of Behavior. “Last night I lost a day”, Tennant mourns on the latter, irony nowhere in sight, before giving in and sighing, “baby come back to me”. It’s a perfect eulogy for these twisted times. Even a lesser moment like “Beautiful People” is a satisfying progression of the more pure-pop leanings of Release.
Pet Shop Boys really made their name as a dance-pop act. In recent years, their uptempo numbers have come across as transparent attempts to re-capture the radio-dominating, chart-climbing days of “It’s A Sin” and “Go West”, with varying success. This is Higgins, Tennant and Lowe’s greatest achievement with Yes. They’ve reinvigorated, remodeled, and sharpened up the dance numbers, which are in the majority here. At their best, no one can elicit pop euphoria like Pet Shop Boys. “Did You See Me Coming”, “More Than a Dream”, and even the minor-key “The Way It Used to Be” all work the magic you thought the band no longer had. The real pinnacle, however, is “Pandemonium”. From its title to the hint of that “dugga-dugga-dugga” bass, it’s the most classic Pet Shop Boys track on the album. Call it a throwback if you must. Also call it a more blissful combination of wit, irony, sincerity, pop hooks, big choruses, and butt-shaking rhythms than Pet Shop Boys have produced in over 15 years. Opening with an homage to Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus”, picking up steam with some irresistible “Oooh ooh ooh"s and horn blasts, and peaking with Tennant’s “When you think about it / it’s quite an achievement / that, after all, I still love you”, it’s one of those Number One in Heaven moments.
Not even the paring of Tennant, Lowe, and Higgins can completely avoid clunkers. The politically-oriented “Building a Wall” isn’t embarrassing, but isn’t all that great, either. The line, “There’s nowhere to defect to any more” is the most backwards-looking part of the album. Closer “Legacy” is what happens when Pet Shop Boys let their Art get the best of their Pop. A better choice would have been “This Used to Be the Future”, included on the “Special Edition” release. It’s a more suitable lament for old times, featuring Philip Oakey doing a brilliant reprisal of early Human League “futurism”. Good stuff, indeed.
Yes probably won’t restore Pet Shop Boys to mainstream status in America or provide the kind of career rejuvenation Very did in 1993, but it may actually serve a greater purpose. In an era when pop is going sour, it’s sweet and fresh. It’s the moment when Pet Shop Boys became relevant again.