The opening minute of the Pet Shop Boys’ twelfth studio album feels like the calm before the storm. It’s a patient, breath-catching moment that gives way to one of their most dynamic arrangements in years, but only when it’s good and ready to do so. Where last year’s Elysium was low-fi and ultimately scattershot, Electric strategically provides welcome adrenaline. It doesn’t take a genius to declare that the current state of pop music is, to say the least, troublesome. Looking to the charts for top quality work is a fool’s errand, but it doesn’t make it any less depressing when the majority are gorging on will.i.am when they could be supporting the likes of Sally Shapiro and Annie.
Electric may not be entirely free of current tropes but its indulgences are refreshingly minimal. Whether a direct assault on an increasingly barren wasteland or a work that benefits because of said wasteland, Electric feels like an indictment of the never-ending parade of cynical manufactured pop records where the amount of guest stars is more important than the craft. That said, Example does make an appearance and there is a Bruce Springsteen cover. But let’s return to that opening sixty-odd seconds and what follows. ‘Axis’ is all about control, the intro dulling the senses before a Kavinsky-esque groove takes hold, the bedrock for an all-out EDM assault. If Elysium felt like an epilogue, ‘Axis’ tears it up and starts all over again with marksman precision.
‘Bolshy’ follows suit, albeit a tad more cheekily, Neil Tennant using its title as a bouncing ball, staying one step ahead of deceptive sinister synth lines. Meanwhile, ‘Love Is a Bourgeouis Construct’ goes all-in on the pomp and circumstance in a way that proved beyond Daft Punk and Empire of the Sun this year. It’s ridiculous, it knows it and yet there’s a quiet grace lurking beneath the arpeggiators. Not everything connects so smoothly. ‘Flourescent’ has dark and interesting ideas but is saddled by obvious wordplay while ‘Inside a Dream’ is much too ponderous to justify its length. Thankfully, they’re just minor speed bumps. The Boys’ reimagining of Springsteen’s ‘The Last to Die’ proves absolutely inspired, with Tennant, always a criminally underrated vocalist, bringing his own wounded conviction to Bruce’s mournful lyrics. As for Example? His white-boy spitting on the rollicking ‘Thursday’ feels right at home in the context of a gloriously OTT ode to the weekend.
Electric is a record of skill and charm, but it’s the spectacular ‘Vocal’ that hits hardest, mixing the omnipresent join-the-dots synth-ramp trick with great poignancy. Perhaps it is wishful thinking that the employment of such a device is satirical, but the nature of Tennant’s musings certainly gives pause for thought. The narrative presents a man in search of connection and clarity. It begins discreetly, a quiet build as Tennant intones: “I like the people, I like the song /This is my kind of music, They play it all night long / I like the singer, he’s lonely and strange/ Every track has a vocal, and that makes a change”
He’ll repeat these words and the sentiment several times over six and a half minutes, but the final exhalation carries with it significant weight. What happens between is sound and fury, signifying everything. It’s not that the pretenders don’t have vocals. It’s not that they don’t possess prowess. It’s that their words and actions are largely meaningless. Their toys and flourishes exist to fill gaps and quotas. Pet Shop Boys may not be above the odd misguided couplet or meander but, as Electric proves on its rare missteps, even their forays into shallow waters yield considerable depth.