The Pet Shop Boys are considered the best-selling, most successful pop act in U.K. history. They’re living legends—their myriad dance-pop albums, a fresh release cropping up every couple years, that cycle through easily palatable, unvarying melodic tropes like so many Abba records, continually do well in the British charts. When grumps sit around and complain about the new-new Morrissey album or the latest offering from another aging U.K. pop icon, their complaint belies an ignorance about how devotedly rabid the fanbases of these artist are, and how warm their big-industry critical reception can be.
And what of this staying power? For one, they’re considered enough of a national treasure to perform in severely shoulder-padded futuristic suits at the Summer Olympics closing ceremonies. More over, Elysium’s lead single, “Winner,” which was released well in advance of the summer games, with a refrain of “you’re a winner / I’m a winner / this is all happening so fast!” smacks a little too obviously of a promotional tie-in attempt. For another, somehow frontman Neil Tennant’s porcelain, nasally croon resists any signs of wear—well, it could be some careful production sleight-of-hand, but really, when is it not?
Speaking of production, the album boasts an assist from L.A.-based veteran Kanye collaborator Andrew Dawson. The duo’s patented Euro-disco sound remains in tact, but softened with a chiller after-glow, perhaps characteristic of a SoCal sound, and less crisp Casio plodding or power synths. This effect appears most marvelously on the opener “Leaving,” which foregrounds a sweetly harmonized hook before dissolving into lead-heavy and borderline preachy lyrics—not about a departing lover, at least—but the mortal passing of dear friends.
Pet Shop Boys’ characteristic snarky undertone shows up in a few moments of brilliance, like “Your Early Stuff,” which details an awkward encounter with a washed-up artist, maybe hinting at a quip often posed to the boys themselves. Easily the strongest selection is the closer, a belaboredly titled disco anthem “Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin,” which also plays bitingly at the idea of an aging star, but incorporates the duo’s trademark, free-form litany of vivid images delivered in Tennant’s near-spoken lilt.
However, these are only the few standouts on an album otherwise comprised of facile dance tunes with overwritten lyrics, a perfect example being the track “Invisible,” an otherwise spot-on, icy ballad that woos smoothly until Tennant asks, “am I tragic or a joke / wrapped in my invisibility cloak?” It’s a dud of line in a song that works, up to that point, wholly because of its whispering subtlety. Gaffes like this only serve to frustrate the dedicated listener—when a proven act comes so close to perfectly inhabiting the sound that they’re known for, only to slip up in a moment of excellence and tamper with the ambience.
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