Music

Pet Shop Boys: SUPER

Photo: Joseph Sinclair

Thirty years since "West End Girls" launched their career, Pet Shop Boys are back with a thrilling new album produced by Stuart Price, SUPER.


Pet Shop Boys

SUPER

Label: x2
US Release Date: 2016-04-01
UK Release Date: 2016-04-01
Amazon
iTunes

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.

9

Music

Books

Film

Recent
By the Book

Jack Halberstam's 'Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire' (excerpt)

Enjoy this excerpt of Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire, wherein Jack Halberstam offers an alternative history of sexuality by tracing the ways in which wildness has been associated with queerness and queer bodies throughout the 20th century.

Jack Halberstam
Music

Sotto Voce's 'Your Husband, the Governor' Is Beautifully Twisted DIY Indie Folk-rock

Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Gabos releases another odd, gorgeous home studio recording under the moniker Sotto Voce.

Music

Numün's 'voyage au soleil' Is a Trippy, Ambient Ride and Ambitious Debut

Eclectic instrumental trio numün combine a wealth of influences to create a vibe that's both spacey and earthy on voyage au soleil.

Music

L7's 'Smell the Magic' Is 30 and Packs a Feminist Punch

Abortion is under threat again, and there's a sex offender in the Oval Office. A fitting time, in short, to crank up the righteously angry vocals of feminist hard rock heavy hitters like L7.

Books

Can Queer Studies Rescue American Universities?

Matt Brim's Poor Queer Studies underscores the impact of poorer disciplines and institutions, which often do more to translate and apply transformative intellectual ideas in the world than do their ivory-tower counterparts.

Music

Jim White Offers a "Smart Ass Reply" (premiere)

Jesus and Alice Cooper are tighter than you think, but a young Jim White was taught to treat them as polar opposites. Then an eight-track saved his soul and maybe his life.

Music

Ed Harcourt Paints From 'Monochrome to Colour'

British musician Ed Harcourt's instrumental music is full of turbulent swells and swirls that somehow maintain a dignified beauty on Monochrome to Colour.

Music

West London's WheelUP Merges Broken Beat and Hip-Hop on "Stay For Long" (premiere)

West London producer WheelUP reached across the pond to Brint Story to bring some rapid-fire American hip-hop to his broken beat revival on "Stay For Long".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 4: Stellie, The Brooks, Maude La​tour

Today's playlist features the premiere of Stellie's "Colours", some top-class funk from the Brooks, Berne's eco-conscious electropop, clever indie-pop from Maude Latour, Jaguar Jonze rocking the mic, and Meresha's "alien pop".

Culture

Plattetopia: The Prefabrication of Utopia in East Berlin

With the fall of the Berlin Wall came the licence to take a wrecking ball to its nightmare of repression. But there began the unwritten violence of Die Wende, the peaceful revolution that hides the Oedipal violence of one order killing another.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Electrosoul's Flõstate Find "Home Ground" on Stunning Song (premiere)

Flõstate are an electrosoul duo comprised of producer MKSTN and singer-songwriter Avery Florence that create a mesmerizing downtempo number with "Home Ground".

Music

Orchestra Baobab Celebrate 50 Years with Vinyl of '​Specialist in All Styles'

As Orchestra Baobab turn 50, their comeback album Specialist in All Styles gets a vinyl reissue.

Music

Hot Chip Stay Up for 'Late Night Tales'

Hot Chip's contribution to the perennial compilation project Late Night Tales is a mixed bag, but its high points are consistent with the band's excellence.

Music

The Budos Band Call for Action on "The Wrangler" (premiere)

The Budos Band call on their fans for action with the powerful new track "The Wrangler" that falls somewhere between '60s spy thriller soundtrack and '70s Ethiojazz.

Music

Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" Ruminates on Our Second-Guesses (premiere)

A deep reflection on breaking up, Nashville indie rock/Americana outfit Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" is the most personal track from their new album, Home Team.

Books

For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?

Music

Brett Newski Plays Slacker Prankster on "What Are You Smoking?" (premiere)

Is social distancing something we've been doing, unwittingly, all along? Brett Newski pulls some pranks, raises some questions in "What Are You Smoking?".


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.