Pet Shop Boys Pet Shop BoysElysium
“[They] sold over fifteen million albums, and it's only Monday.” That's how Jay Leno introduced the most successful British duo of all times (they supposedly are in the Guinness Book of World Records), back in 1991, during their first and eventful American tour for their masterpiece “Behaviour”. Another debatable factoid: the Jay Leno show ended up as the Chris Lowe show, as he, angry because he felt ignored by the cameras during the performance, walked off the set and raised hell. The funny story is symbolic for the absolute train wreck that was that tour, described in Chris Heath's highly recommendable book “Pet Shop Boys versus America”.
21 years and 35 million sold records later, and in quite a different place when it comes to popularity, Neil Tennant and Lowe returned to Los Angeles to record their eleventh album. After the collaboration with Xenomania on the marvellous (no discussion here) crossover between factory and singer-songwriter pop that was the very British “Yes”, the choice for Andrew Dawson at the helm, known for his recent work with Kanye West, pointed at a possible turn toward the little explored black pop. But paradoxically, on “Elysium”, Pet Shop Boys are sounding more introverted than ever, which is remarkable for a band that has always been able to avoid obsolescence by tastefully styling their songs according to the latest trends. Maybe they felt introspective. Or maybe it's a sign of the times pop music is living: it's better to stay on safe ground than to err on the EDM path.
Dawson's production is precisely the weak link on “Elysium”. Too adult at times, and without fantasy, the album seems to get stuck in second gear, despite the impeccable execution. To compare the orchestral tribute to Händel of “Hold On” with the Trevor Horn produced “Left To My Own Devices”, would be unfair (and rather depressing). Just as unfair as blaming Dawson for the inclusion of “Give It A Go”, one of the worst songs of their career, even though he plays his part on the song, with some utterly boring percussion.
Nevertheless, in spite of its lethargic appearance, “Elysium” holds several treasures, making a real grower of the album. The lovely lyrics of single “Leaving” are Tennant at his best. “Our love is dead / but the dead are here to stay / (...) / and if our love is dead / it won’t be dead for long”. It lacks a certain punch to be a hit single, but it will most likely be a future fan favourite. The introverted (even more than usual) ballad “ Invisible”, sounds monotonous at first listen, but tells a heart-breaking story of rejection. “Ego Music”, which could be a great Sparks song, paints a hilarious and acidic picture of the Me Generation and the empty statements of its pop stars. “Breathing Space” and, most of all, “Requiem In Denim And Leopardskin”, recover the spirit of the best moments on “Behaviour”, which is quite a feat. On “A Face Like That”, they revisit the Bobby O productions of their early years, right after mocking their own dinosaur status in “Your Early Stuff”. “Winner”, while it was the weakest advance single of their career, bringing back the errors (to many) of “Release”, as part of the whole, the song makes sense. And the melody and keyboard riff of “Memory Of The Future” are the emotional zenith of an unsentimental record.
The album title, “Elysium”, refers to the Greek concept of heaven. And, let's be honest, it's a miracle Pet Shop Boys have come this far on good form. 31 Years later, they're still the prototype of an interpretation of pop some feel is pure, something they share with, for example, Saint Etienne. A philosophy in which art is accessible, a deep knowledge of music history doesn't clash with a respect for trends, accessibility isn't synonymous with simplicity, and refinement doesn't exclude mass success. A philosophy according to which it's pop music, rather than the pop artist, that has to be taken seriously. Here's hoping it will stay that way for many years to come.