I’ve always had a soft spot for the Pet Shop Boys. Some of my earliest musical memories include hearing West End Girls on the radio and seeing the video for Suburbia on TV. While their mainstream popularity seems to have waned somewhat in recent years, their music continues to excite, while their influence is markedly evident across the dance music world – Daft Punk, Empire of the Sun, The Presets – all duos that like to play around with electronic music, clever lyrics and iconic imagery.
Coming less than twelve months after the comparatively subdued and introspective Elysium, the dance floor rhythms, pulsating synths and overall euphoric vibe of Electric seem to signal some kind of rebirth for the duo. While every new PSB album always inverts the stylistic tendencies displayed on the preceding record, and so such a shift shouldn’t come as a surprise, the record’s energy and the fact this album is the first on their own x2 label indicate Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have stumbled upon a fountain of vigour, freshness and inspiration. Stuart Price is on board as producer, and as he did with Madonna and the Scissor Sisters, he’s steered the Pet Shop Boys directly (back) to the centre of the dance floor.
With only nine tracks, there’s certainly not an over-abundance of material. But with most of these clocking in at 5+ minutes, there’s lots of music to sink your teeth into. It’s also most definitely a case of quality over quantity. The album’s disco foundations are made starkly apparent from the outset, with the Moroder-inspired Axis rattling along on layers of recognisably-Pet Shop Boys widescreen synths, and it’s a lyrically sparse assertive statement of intent, Tennant imploring us to “feel the power” and “turn it on”. Bolshy deceptively starts off as a bouncing, nursery rhyme-esque delight, gradually moving into darker and more sinister electro territory.
Keeping track of Tennant’s lyrics and their broader social and cultural references has always been part of the game with the Pet Shop Boys, and on here, the flamboyantly theatrical Love is a Bourgeois Construct marries mentions of Karl Marx, “schadenfreude” and doing the housework with music sourced from Henry Purcell via Michael Nyman and a male-voice choir that recalls their cover of Go West, all wrapped up in a glistening melodic framework underpinned by a galloping house beat. It’s classic PSB and easily one of their finest moments.
Things get a little darker with the minimal electro styling of Flourescent, while Inside a Dream drips with a bubbling and hypnotic Chicago house aesthetic that manages to be both old-school and truly contemporary at the same time. The album’s sole cover comes in the form of Bruce Springsteen’s Last to Die, and transforms the gritty anti-war rage of the original into a shiny dance-pop gem. There’s an incongruity about the juxtaposition of the lyrical content with the sonic material, but as they did with their cover of U2’s Where the Streets Have No Name, the Pet Shop Boys make the track their own, in the process demonstrating their skill at harnessing the malleability of all great songs.
The rhythmic intensity and dirty synths of Shouting in the Evening see it teeter on the edge of techno, and it’s a frenetic celebration of late night hedonism that drips with incessant energy. Recalling some of the sonic trademarks of their ‘80s output, Thursday takes the pace down a little, a delicate and poised piece of pop that sees Lowe throw in a few Paninaro-style vocals alongside Tennant and a rap from Example, a combination which, perhaps surprisingly, works perfectly. Final track Vocal closes the album in suitably euphoric fashion, with epic synths and rolling beats layered under a vocal that, rather appropriately, praises the power of pop music.
Like all great albums, this leaves you wanting more. While it’s probably too late in the game for the Pet Shop Boys to reclaim any kind of widespread mainstream acclaim, Electric proves that even after thirty years, the duo are still very much at the peak of their powers. This is pop music exactly as it should be.