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Pet Shop Boys: Elysium (2012)

September 11, 2012

Pet-Shop-Boys-Elysium-album-coverRoll: N/A (obligatory PSB review)
Album: Pet Shop Boys, Elysium

A lot of the Internet chatter leading up to the release of Elysium (it was streamed at the Guardian) has been that it’s reminiscent of Pet Shop Boys 1990 album, Behaviour. Personally, I don’t hear it. What most comes to mind for me is Release (2002).

I suspect what people are actually latching onto is the cover art is the most similar to Behaviour‘s—the the inset white field over the photography is roughly the same ratio (give or take a centimeter) as the inset photography on the white field of Behaviour‘s cover (though reversed, obviously). This is my theory anyway as the albums sound vastly different in tone and production to my ears.

Elysium is also being hailed as their most holistically well-conceived and executed album since Behaviour. Having just read Pet Shop Boys Vs. America, wherein the Boys lament how they feel Behaviour was their first failure (commercially and artistically) as an album, I find this a little humourous. In a wry manner appropriately ironic for the duo, naturally.

Behaviour was certainly the point in which I lost interest in PSB for about four years. I enjoyed “So Hard” quite a bit, but I felt they’d gone off the boil with the rest. I wanted more “Left To My Own Devices” and the straight ahead, yet cerebral, house of Introspective (1988). I was in high school and I wanted an upbeat album that could compete with with the muscular rhythms of Front 242 and Nitzer Ebb and not, apparently, songs like “Nervously”  and “Jealousy” or the other soppy, down-tempo, soft-rock/R&B numbers.

It wasn’t until quite late in 1994 (or early 1995) when I realized the album I’d ignored upon release, Very (1993), was very, very good indeed. It was then that I gave Behaviour another listen (perhaps my first proper one) and realized it’s certainly another of their classics (though a lesser classic). Where it really suffers is in a few uncharacteristically dated production flourishes (for instance the 80’s hip-hop style guitar stabs on “How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously?”). Even their quintessentially 80’s “West End Girls” has always managed to remain relatively fresh-sounding in a way much of Behaviour doesn’t. This could be because it was the first album that felt like they were trying to fit-in with the artists they were rubbing shoulders with in the charts instead of just being, unapologetically, themselves.

Elysium gives me a similar feeling. The production sounds so now it almost sounds dated already. Or, perhaps, I’m just a codger who doesn’t really like what pop music sounds like in last days of 2012 and wishes PSB had stuck with the slightly retro (but still progressive) sound of their last few albums.

Yet I don’t think this is entirely the case. I rather enjoyed the sound of Madonna‘s MDNAKylie‘s Aphrodite and Robyn‘s Bodytalk, all of which boast a similar digitally sterile and ringtone-compressed modern pop sound. And on Elysium‘s uptempo tracks, it does work quite well.

Leaving” is probably their best maudlin disco-pop song since “I Don’t Know What You Want, But I Can’t Give It Anymore” (13 years, says the math) and the hi-NRG gloss on “A Face Like That” is exactly what the track needs.  “Memory of The Future” wraps the first four PSB albums up in a nice little bow and is also excellent. The stellar closer, “Requiem in Demin and Leopard Skin“, is the track that really does sound the most like Behaviour. That is to say it’s something between “Being Boring” and “My October Symphony”—and that’s not a bad thing at all.

Six more songs like these and this would be an album to rival the Boys’ best. But the rest of the album is quite a different affair.

The nearly stagnant “Invisible” is actually a rather good song, and works well along side the best tracks, but it should have been sequence far later in the album. Coming on the heels of “Leaving” it stalls the album on the second track. Out of the garage at top speed and smack! Right into a brick wall.

After this crash, the excruciatingly twee single, “Winner“, fails to pick up the pieces. It’s a classic “single” with a too obvious, vaguely annoying hook and (though they say it’s about the Eurovision contest) seems too much like a cynical Olympics tie-in.  I rather like the digital bundle remixes, and the video was great, but I simply can’t listen to this album mix.

Your Early Stuff” is another in the “Yesterday When I Was Mad” tradition of recounting insensitive things people have said to them. It sounds suitably like a classic PSB track. It’s a keeper, actually.

The dopey acoustic guitar on the snoozy, MOR “Breathing Space” is unbearable. The song has a real 90’s Lilith Fair feel to it, with a bit of that “Home and Dry” sound. This would have fit on Release quite well. For my tastes, that’s not a good thing.

I want to like “Ego Music” with its Kraftwerk pulse but, unless it grows on me or I clue into the genius of it, I feel like it’s one of the duo’s rare, complete disasters. It also seems like a concept they executed far better with “Electricity” on Bilingual (1996). I actually am incapable of listening to the song all the way through in one sitting.

As is the case with “Hold On” which follows. Sort of a soft-rock/gospel anthem where the backing track sounds like a demo-song on a Portasound keyboard. It has a definite lighters-in-the-air feel to it with a little bit of a Beatles meets Boney M mixed in. It definitely achieves what it sets out to do, but no one should set out to do this.

Once “Give It A Go” gets past the opening chorus, I rather like it. Though it is really just a classic album filler track. It’s pretty much another Release-style down-tempo pop-rock ditty. Something like “London” only the production doesn’t sound as rich—again that Portasound feel. And that “give it a go, give it a go” refrain is irksome.

Everything Means Something” is quite interesting. It’s probably the only truly “hip” track on the album. It’s the only song that has a hint of the indie-electronic sound of M83 or Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs. This could be one of my favourite tracks on the album and I think it hits on where the problem lies in Elysium‘s production.

Though Andrew Dawson does some good work here, I can’t help feeling James Murphy or someone from Hot Chip would have brought out more of the strengths, suppressed more of the weaknesses, made things a little more texturally rich and less one-size-fits-all pop. Pure speculation; impossible to say if that would have been the case.

But whether or not a different producer could have made this record “hipper” or “more relevant” or more “trendy” opens up another can of worms. Up until now, though they’ve always remained up-to-date (if not trend-setting) in their production, this is the first time where an album sounds like PSB are really chasing trends (as they did a bit on Behaviour) and playing it safe (as they did a bit on Release).

It seemed like the’d been stepping away from Pop and moving towards Art for quite a while, but this album is undeniably designed to be pure Pop for the 2012/13 season. And though there’s elements of that with both Behaviour and Release, this time around Tennant and Lowe seem a little long in the tooth for all that.

That said, despite some all-time career lows, the highs on Elysium might be a few notches higher than those on Fundamental (2006) and Yes (2009). “Leaving” is definitely a milestone and “Requiem” is an instant classic.

So, really, it’s just that dodgy middle section that needs to be navigated around.

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