At this stage, are Pet Shop Boys better at talking about pop music than they are at making it?
In 1987, Pet Shop Boys released their sophomore album, Actually. Its cover featured keyboardist Chris Lowe looking nonplussed, while vocalist/keyboardist Neil Tennant yawned into the camera.LINK The duo were wearing tuxedos, and the photo was a droll swipe at the insipid state of the pop/rock establishment at the time. Or, combined with the phrase "Pet Shop Boys, actually" as it appeared on the cover, it was Tennant's and Lowe's ironic attempt to downplay their massive success. But in America, especially, the photo was interpreted as pretentious and smug.
Now, a quarter-century later, Pet Shop Boys comes Elysium, their 11th studio album. It is, for the most part, dull and insipid. You have to wonder if the irony of a band that used to make fun of dull pop music, releasing an album of dull pop music, is lost on Tennant and Lowe.
Once a band has been around as Pet Shop Boys have, and has established and honed such a singular sound, focus for each new album shifts to the matter of who the producer is. Much has been made of Tennant and Lowe's recording Elysium in Los Angeles with producer Andrew Dawson. Dawson is known for his work with R&B and hip-hop acts such as Kanye West, Jay-Z, and John Legend. Most of that work has been as engineer rather than producer, though. In any case, Tennant and Lowe have said they were looking for the spacious, electronic, yet soulful sound they associated with Dalton's work.
Sounds like a good plan, and it works, at least as far as the overall feel of Elysium is concerned. No matter whom they work with, Pet Shop Boys have a wonderful knack for sounding exactly like Pet Shop Boys, which means lots of lush synth pads, pulsing electronic rhythms, and Tennant's studied, sincere croon. But Dawson helps quiet things down and mellow them out, indeed giving every bit of percussion and every snare drum a good amount of space.
The toned-down style has drawn immediate comparisons to Pet Shop Boys' excellent, undervalued 1990 mood piece Behaviour. First track "Leaving" makes good on this comparison, and then some. Floating in on melancholy synths, cavernous percussion, and a swirling, flute-like riff, the track is gorgeous, affecting, and soulful in a way Pet Shop Boys have never been before. Add in an offhandedly catchy chorus and some trademark PSB choral samples, and you have an instant classic. The Dawson hire seems like a brilliant move.
But then…the rest of the album happens. And, though the production is suitably silver-lined throughout, you are forced to come to terms with one crucial difference between Elysium and Behaviour or any of Pet Shop Boys' best albums. That is, the songs.
Elysium is woefully short on what Tennant and Lowe do best, which is disarmingly sharp pop songs that stick in your head but also leave you thinking afterward. There are some good ideas at play here, for sure, but neither the music nor the lyrics do them justice. Even the stuff that works is recycled from previous Pet Shop Boys songs that have arguably done better jobs at hitting their marks. "Your Early Stuff" compiles observations Tennant has heard cabbies make about his band. You know, they're getting old, their early stuff was better, thought they were retired, etc. But the song hinges on a repeated chorus that, even at a mere 2 ½ minutes, starts to grate. "Ego Music" takes aim at pretentious, narcissistic pop stars. Tennant's deadpanned, in-character "I see myself as a building. My mind is an office where the work gets done" is great. The chorus, though, cuts no deeper than "Me Me Me Me / Yes Yes Yes Yes / You You You You / No No No No", sounding like a tune from a kids' show like Yo Gabba Gabba!. It's clunky and, frankly, lazy, whereas the similarly-themed "How Can You Expect to be Taken Seriously? " from Behaviour sported musical sophistication to match its lyrical wit.
"Hold On" is the type of wistful, "all together now" anthem Pet Shop Boys can usually pull off with aplomb, a 'la "It's Alright" or "Go West". It makes use of male and female backing vocals to show off Tennant's and Lowe's recent diversions into theater, coming across like a stately, sad showtune. It's good, but its resignation seems only to underscore Elysium's general sense of exhaustion. Still, it's a highlight, and should go over great in concert.
At times Tennant and Lowe muster up the old energy, only for it to fade prematurely. "Face Like That" has a mean electro-bass and a fireworks show of electronic percussion that recalls the duo's mid-'80s heyday. But not even it can muster up lyrics or a chorus worth remembering. It's as if, having hit on a great instrumental track, Pet Shop Boys forgot they were supposed to turn it into a song.
There are pleasant, effortless midtempo ballads here, too. They are nondescript but inoffensive, which is more than can be said for "Winner". The problem with the song, the lead single, is not that Pet Shop Boys make such a shameless attempt to turn London Olympic fervor into a chart hit, it's that they use such a lame, lowest-common-denominator song to do so.
Neil Tennant is a former music journalist, and in a recent PopMatters interview, he discusses all things pop in engaging and enthusiastic fashion. Yes, Tennant can still talk the talk, but the pre-Pet Shop Boys, 1980s version of him would probably listen to an album like Elysium and…yawn.