It has been over 30 years now since synth-pop legends Pet Shop Boys formed. I've been a massive fan since their 1986 debut album Please and they enjoyed an incredible run of top notch albums. Then came their last full length, 2009's Yes. This has been the only Pet Shop Boys album I personally felt was a dud. The collaboration with producer Xenomania brought an album with too many songs that sounded beneath the high standards PSB usually set for themselves. I know plenty of fans love Yes, to each their own, but it left me worried about future PSB releases.
Every great artist, and make no mistake Pet Shop Boys are simply a great pop act, eventually hits a point where they can't match the quality of their past work. Just ask another of my favorites, Prince. Pet Shop Boys had an incredible nine album run of excellent albums starting with their debut. My concern was what would come next after Yes. Would it be a further dive into mediocrity? Well Elysium is now here, their eleventh studio release, and this album proves Yes was a brief misstep in an otherwise flawless career.
This time around, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe chose to produce the album with Andrew Dawson, better known for his work with hip hop and R&B acts like Kanye West, Jay-Z, John Legend and Beyonce. I wasn't quite sure what to expect out of this collaboration but Dawson, in some ways, does for Pet Shop Boys what Mark Ronson did for Duran Duran on last year's All You Need Is Now. A melding of the sound that they became famous for in the 80's with a more modern sheen.
Starting with the fantastic opener "Leaving", the new album is front loaded with Grade A material. The first half of Elysium is essentially perfection. "Leaving" is awash in strings and a gorgeous, sighed chorus. It comes as no surprise the track is slated to be the album's second single. The lush ballad "Invisible" follows and the early impression is Elysium is a laid back, slower affair, akin to 1990's masterpiece Behaviour. Tennant does visit much deeper topics lyrically this time around, a welcome return from some of the trite material on Yes. But first single "Winner" picks up the tempo, maybe not the strongest first single off a PSB album, but the infectious chorus quickly hooks you. It's a vintage Pet Shop Boys melody.
Tennant's penchant for biting humor is on display in "Your Early Stuff", a lyric he says is based on actual quotes from people he has encountered over the years commenting on PSB. 'You've been around but you don't look too rough and I still quite like some of your early stuff' is the key line in the song, as he pokes fun at himself through the words of others. It's nearly a sister song to "Yesterday, When I Was Mad" from 1993's Very, another commentary on media and public reaction to the duo and their music. "A Face Like That" is nothing short of classic Pet Shop Boys. The keyboards on this track are straight out of the 80's. This song would have fit seamlessly on 1987's Actually, a pure throwback, and it makes you wish PSB would record an entire album re-visiting those retro sounds, it's that good.
After the acoustic guitar driven ballad "Breathing Space", Elysium hits a rough patch that prevents it from being mentioned in the same company as the duo's best works. "Ego Music" is a funny shot at the current self-obsessed pop music world, but it's more of a curiosity than a great song. It is still worlds better than the album's low point, "Hold On", one of the worst tracks Pet Shop Boys have released. The lyrics are corny and musically it's a huge piece of show tune cheese. Melodically it's pretty but that can't make up for everything else that is wrong with it, the only truly poor song here. "Give It A Go" is also below the standards of the rest of the album with a rather sappy chorus, but it's still miles ahead of "Hold On".
Just when you think the album may be falling apart with this weaker middle, things rebound in a big way on the last three tracks. "Memory Of The Future" is a dark, synth-heavy love song while "Everything Means Something" stands as my favorite track on the album. From its moody, sinister sounding verses the song explodes into an exhilarating chorus. This is electro-pop at its best. Things come to a close with "Requiem In Denim And Leopardskin", a nostalgic track both lyrically and musically that could easily be interpreted as PSB's swan song, but something tells me as long as Tennant and Lowe are breathing, they'll be making music. And fans of pop music will be better off for it. They've got a lot left to contribute and Elysium is a huge bounce back album for Pet Shop Boys.
Elysium is released in the U.S. September 11, 2012 on the Astralwerks label.