Release Date: July 16, 2013
Being boring suits Pet Shop Boys as poorly as Bruce Springsteen covering one of their songs. Fortunately, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have addressed the former problem and reversed the latter hypothetical. Their 12th studio album is their most beat-savvy (and beat-heavy) since 1988’s Introspective, a boon for fans of “Love Comes Quickly” and “Two Divided by Zero” who long for the early sleaze: The syncopated electronics here subsume the ardor that Tennant has spent too many years indulging.
A synth-pop act recognized for top-drawer tunes who’ve lately sounded as if they’d outgrown clubs, Pet Shop Boys have spent most of the new millennium buying and selling their history. 2009’s Yes and 2012’s Elysium fell prey to Tennant’s singer-songwriter tendencies; meanwhile, second-tier hitmakers like Xenomania garnished retreads in the dowdiest way possible. By contrast, Electric boasts the sonic spritzing demonstrated by producer Stuart Price on his Gwen Stefani and Killers remixes, not to mention his work on Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor: Bits of house piano and arpeggiated chords embellish most songs (Tennant and Lowe have recorded long enough to watch as Escort and Todd Terje have legitimated early-’90s nostalgia). On “Fluorescent,” Price fades the electronics and raises them again for an appropriate climax, the Boys’ own version of Madge’s “Hung Up.” The nearly instrumental “Shouting in the Evening” is the kind of high-beats-per-minute track they would’ve consigned to B-side status in other years, while organ swells announce the bare sequencer- and vocal sample-anchored “Inside a Dream.”
Approaching nearly 120 years of cumulative experience between them, the Boys haven’t foregone symmetry: The wordless, Patrick Cowley-inspired opener “Axis” mirrors the closing “Vocal.” (They’ve also sequenced Electric in alphabetical order.) Conceits still fascinate them: “Love Is a Bourgeois Concept” could’ve sprung from Stephen Merritt’s worried head, a thumper that abjures the soppiness of their latter-day singles for a Tennantian admission of mixed intentions. Leave it to them to write a weekend anthem called “Thursday,” the album’s most buoyant track — as Tennant reminds his lover that “It’s not over, over,” chimes out of Freez’s “I.O.U.” evoke what they’ve spent 72 hours doing, while sinister block synth-string chords evoke the threat of Monday.
But the Boys save their best trick for the Springsteen cover: a transformation of the 2007 Magic anti-war track “The Last to Die” that finds hi-NRG correlatives for Bruce’s highways and radios. Like their version of U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name,” it disinters new levels of poignancy from Tennant’s high-nasal ordinariness and those synthesizers. Context matters. On an album devoted to savoring life’s basic pleasures, the Boss’ apocalyptic libretto injects the appropriately dusky note. That’s why Electric is a triumph: Tennant and Lowe’s rueful melodies and vocals dilute the euphoria. Classic Pet Shop Boys, in other words.