Pet Shop Boys less than heavenly on ‘Elysium’
As the Pet Shop Boys, alterna-pop pioneers Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe never fail to keep the musical landscape interesting. With a knack for super-clever lyrics on top of dreamy dance beats, the duo has carved a signature sound into the ears of gay audiences for three decades.
With their 11th studio album, Elysium, The Boys are back. But with so many years in the industry, the new album makes it hard to tell if they are making music for fans or just for their own amusement.
PSB does not have much relevance in today’s music landscape. They are a product of decades past with a beautiful legacy. The upshot is, there is no reason to expect that their Next Great Album is due, though good music is still expected. And they are experts at delivering tunes that fascinate with sophistication.
“Rent” was a classic and “Was it Worth It?” an underrated bit that pulsated with energy worthy of a Michael Bay movie, but with brains. Some of that is here, but a lot of it just doesn’t matter.
They start off strong with the smooth “Leaving,” immediately sticking to the lush beat that we’ve heard before but which never grows tiresome. Tennant’s usually elfin voice has a bit of gravel to it when he sings I can still find some hope to believe in love. This is some of their best work that manages to surprise.
Then they fizzle out with “Invisible.” The subsequent track slows the pace considerably … but it’s only the second song. The album is stilted in its flow but fortunately, they know how to treat the quieter tunes. “Invisible” is an exercise in elegance, if completely misplaced.
Mistakes like these plague Elysium — mostly on the second half, though they never establish a flow. The songs are so up and down that it’s hard to settle in. “Winner,” the album’s feel-good song, sounds like an ode to Olympic athletes and is out of character lyrically when as PSB boast we came so far just to compete. The song is fine if a little bit contrived. (Elysium was produced in Los Angeles and this is a track that proves it. PSB is smart to keep their sound intact, but the commercial tone is present and even cheesy.)
Things turn bad with “Breathing Space,” a ballad so drawn out that it’s a chore to listen to. Just skip this track. Ditto “Ego Music.” Where they create some of pop’s more sophisticated music, they also often resort to ridiculousness. Remember “Shopping”? They bring that mentality to this track that actually repeats me me me / you you you with poetic conviction behind it — just no substance. Past tricks that tend to work begin to annoy here with Tennant’s vocal narration and throwaway beats.
“Hold On” plays like a forgotten track from their flawed Closer To Heaven musical, and “Give it a Go” has inspired lyrics, but the chant of its title is pedestrian. Still, somehow in the one-two of these tracks they find their old selves.
They recover more with the bleak, industrial “Memory to the Future,” reminding how they orchestrate electronica rather than just programming it. And when Tennant delivers It’s taken me all of my life to find you, there’s relief in his voice despite a purposeful lack of emotional resonance. What a trick. “Everything Means Something” starts with a bitter tone but builds; the stanzas and beats are weighty and hard juxtaposed by Tennant’s voice.
Elysium suffers from many PSB clichés, but the biggest of all is also its best attribute. They saved the best for last with “Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin.” This high-energy song isn’t about anything, but the usual PSB twists and turns, reminiscent of “Go West,” join with “Leaving” to bookend the CD. Unfortunately everything in between was a mish-mash — some good, a lot bad. And there isn’t a track that sticks with you (be wary of the “Ego Music” earworm), but Pet Shop Boys prove something they have seemed to sidestep their entire careers: Even genius can falter.
— Rich Lopez