x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Pet Shop Boys release Elysium

We tune into the Pet Shop Boys' latest album and find that while it's no match for the duo's earlier work, it does prove their three-decade-long career has been no accident.

Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys performs on stage. Michael Latz / AFP
Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys performs on stage. Michael Latz / AFP

Pet Shop Boys
Elysium
Parlophone
***

The most successful double act in pop history, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have seen their stock rise and fall during their three-decade career. But the deadpan duo have recently enjoyed a sustained period of critical and commercial acclaim, both at home and abroad, becoming a much-loved national institution in their native Britain on a par with the royal family. Between studio albums they have also collaborated on profile-boosting projects including film scores, a stage musical, a ballet and their spectacular Pandemonium world tour. To crown it all, they even landed a scene-stealing guest slot at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics.

To record their 11th studio album, Tennant and Lowe relocated to Hollywood for the first time in three decades, enlisting the services of Kanye West's producer Andrew Dawson. Drenched in California sunshine, the emotional tone of Elysium is mostly warm and laid-back, but undercut with the plaintive minor-key melancholy that has always informed even the most euphoric Pet Shop Boys tracks. Creeping mortality, heartbreak and loss are ever-present background shadows behind the soft-edged electro-throbber Leaving, the bittersweet midlife confessional Invisible and the achingly romantic Memory of the Future. There is even a straight-faced experiment in uplifting gospel-pop on the surging, soaring Hold On.

Droll titles, ironic lyrics and acerbic humour are signature PSB qualities. Sadly, they are less evident than usual on Elysium, with its default setting of midlife reflection and earnest introspection. But, happily, Tennant has not mellowed too much. The blazing disco-pop gallop Ego Music is one of his most deliciously funny songs to date. It is a savage satire on celebrity vanity in which the singer adopts the faux-modest persona of a self-obsessed pop star reeling off hilariously pompous quotes: "That's why people love me … it's humbling." Shooting fish in a barrel, perhaps, but still great fun.

Elysium is an interesting album, but not a PSB classic. Too many tracks feel thin and anodyne, unmemorable melodies clothed in blandly decorous studio polish. And, as ever with Tennant and Lowe, some of the more conceptual songs work better on paper than in the studio. The lyrics to Your Early Stuff are reportedly compiled from comments made to the duo by taxi drivers, an inspired idea with sketchy, repetitive results. That said, even a second-rank album by the longest-running duo in Britpop history still delivers more sophistication, wit and arty-party glamour than almost anyone else in modern music.