Pet Shop Boys party like it’s 1993 on their 13th studio album, SUPER, and it’s a spellbinding ride. It’s been 30 years since their debut Please and the international chart-topper “West End Girls” injected them into pop music’s bloodstream. Since then the Pet Shop Boys have thrilled fans the world over with a string of consistently excellent releases that each have a distinct personality. They’ve scored dozens of hits internationally, even if pop radio in the US abandoned them in the late ‘80s (their last Top 40 hit in America was “Domino Dancing” in 1988). The duo’s last album was 2013’s superb Electric, a hard-hitting collection of slick club anthems produced by the reliably stellar Stuart Price.
It seems the combination of the Pet Shop Boys and Price is a match made in pop heaven, as he’s back for SUPER and once again presents the duo at their very best. The vibe is quite different this time. Electric is sleek, edgy and ultra-modern, while SUPER has quite the retro feel. It’s strange to consider the ‘90s being long enough ago to be “retro”, but it’s been 23 years since the duo’s classic Very was released — one of the great pop albums of the decade, and arguably the Pet Shop Boys’ finest work. SUPER can almost be seen as a sequel of sorts, as it dives back into the then-current sounds that were pumping on the dance floor in a golden era of techno, trance, house and every associated sub-genre imaginable. Chris Lowe is an electro-wizard and knows all the tricks, as he shows yet again. And like Very, under the massive waves of synths and big bright melodies there is an unmistakable thread of apprehension and melancholy.
“Happiness” opens with a pulsing electronic beat, sparkling whooshes of synth, and Neil Tennant’s wonderfully dolorous voice. The rhythm is straight out of a Shep Pettibone remix circa 1990 — “Vogue” comes to mind immediately. The lyrics are a mantra that seems to be the album’s overriding message: “It’s a long way to happiness / a long way to go / but I’m gonna get there, boy / the only way I know.” Tennant repeats the mantra between long flashy instrumental breaks until finally he drifts into a moment of trepidation for the future: “It’s a long way to happiness / and when we get there is anybody’s guess” followed by an explosion of jittery synths that ends the track in a flash of anxiety.
There is always more to a Pet Shop Boys song than meets the eye. Neil Tennant is one of the smartest and most incisive songwriters of the last 30 years, and that hasn’t changed. “The Pop Kids” seems simple at first, a ridiculously catchy ‘90s throwback that Tennant sings with detached coolness. He inhabits the persona of a man looking back at his glory days when rave culture was at its apex and he and his college partner in crime would go to the clubs in London, obsessed with the music scene and all its color and decadence. One of the best lines on the album is Tennant’s sly observation of his mate, a biology major: “To you the human body didn’t hold any mystery”. In more ways than one, no doubt.
Scratch a little deeper and the song is remarkably poignant, a wistful trip back to the golden years of discovery and exploration that are gone forever but will always be treasured. “I loved you”, he sings about his fellow “Pop Kid”. It’s about living in the moment and having the self-awareness to realize that these days, right now, could be the ones you look back on fondly 20 years from now. We don’t know what happened to “The Pop Kids” or how the story ends, although it’s apparent that there is a deeply felt absence.
“Twenty-Something” is a sardonic character study of a millennial struggling to live up to the expectations that modern society imposes — trying to keep up with friends, technology, and money while ultimately sliding into a cycle that’s impossible to escape and leaves him emotionally barren and isolated. “Groovy” lives up to its name, once again diving back into the late ‘80s / early ‘90s for inspiration. It’s another take-down of the artifice and pretension of someone living to impress others, which is a theme Tennant has explored in the past. “Look at me / i’m just so groovy!” In a world that thrives on ever-increasing narcissism fed by social media, it’s easier than ever to show the world how brilliant and amazing you are — rich fodder for Tennant’s acerbic pen.
“The Dictator Decides” is a tense melodrama with a taut rhythm meant to echo the marching of troops. Musically it sounds inspired by the shadowy synthscapes of Depeche Mode’s Violator. Tennant sings in his lower register as the voice of a tyrant who’s lost the will to continue — a despondent shell who’d love nothing more than for someone to put him out of his misery. “I’m too weak to be strong”. There are sonic signatures that will be familiar to fans who remember tracks like “Don Juan” or “This Must Be the Place I Waited Years to Leave”, songs that touch on Tennant’s career-long interest in history — particularly the Cold War and communism. Once again they follow a more complex track with a club banger — “Pazzo!” It’s a mostly instrumental showcase for Chris Lowe who delivers a throbbing beat and manic spikes of keyboard that blast through your head like lights flashing on the dance floor.
The hypnotic vibe continues with “Inner Sanctum”, another frenetic electronic feast with scant vocals that could easily have fit onto the duo’s largely instrumental Relentless EP that was appended to limited editions of Very. At 4:19, the track’s over all too quickly — it’s the type of wicked groove that can mesmerize indefinitely. Until remixes emerge, there’s only one solution: click on repeat and turn it way the hell up. “Undertow” is next, and the duo once again brandishes not-so-coy flares of their prior work but with a modern sheen. It’s a nifty disco gem that’s nostalgic without being stale. This is the Pet Shop Boys we know and love, familiar but still new and exciting.
The duo brings down the tempo on “Sad Robot World”, a chilly and surreal reflection on the type of isolation amongst technology that one might expect to find on a Radiohead album. It’s said that the world is smaller than ever, but that people are lonelier than ever, and you can feel that here. We stay in the ‘90s for “Burn”, a blistering dance/pop anthem that is an obvious choice for next single — it’s a breathless high-energy raver that will compel even the most fearful wallflower out of the dark corners and into the mass of bodies writhing on the dance floor.
“Into Thin Air” is the final thread — the club is shuttered and we’re all heading out into the night, ears ringing and sweat-slicked skin pebbled from the cold. It’s a fantasy about disappearing, escaping the claustrophobic techno-driven world that’s drilled matrix wires into our brains and surrounded us in tangles of barbed computer circuitry.
It’s no accident that the album ends on a desire for liberation. The golden years have passed, and we’re all disconnected — numb on benzodiazepines and trapped by the never-ending stimulation of a fake internet world. The tracks alternate between moments of escapism and the reality from which we need to escape. All in caps, SUPER is tinged with bitterness but is also a recipe for relief. Life may not be perfect, but fuck it, it never was and never will be. It’s a long way to happiness, a long way to go — but I’m gonna get there, boy, the only way I know.