Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Elysium’: Album Review

Robbie Daw | September 20, 2012 5:06 pm
No pop act has consistently kept a steady output of material flowing to their fans over the decades more so than Pet Shop Boys — whether it be studio albums, remix collections, B-sides compilations, live DVDs, one-off singles or music scores to other film or stage projects. And so with their 11th studio LP Elysium (released on ), the indefatigable Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe take the time to, lyrically, stop and reflect on how far they’ve come and where they stand in the world of pop in 2012. It’s a vastly different playing field than when the Boys first ventured into the public realm in the mid-1980s with hits like “West End Girls” and “What Have I Done To Deserve This?”.

To help create the sonic landscape of Elysium, the UK duo enlisted Grammy-winning producer/engineer Andrew Dawson, who they reached out to after sifting through credits on Kanye West‘s 808s & Heartbreak. (Dawson was on board for all of ‘Ye’s albums.)

That Elysium has proven to be a challenging listen for some Pet Shop diehards is not a surprise. After all, it comes on the heels of 2009’s Grammy-nominated Yes, an LP brimming with upbeat tracks courtesy of Brian Higgins and his in-demand British production team Xenomania. But whereas Yes satiated fans of the duo who’d been yearning for a return to proper pop form, a la their seminal 1993 LP Very, Elysium marks for us a more thoughtful and, ultimately, lush moment in the Boys’ lengthy history: it’s Tennant and Lowe in their musical autumn.

Opening track “Leaving” (now slated as Elysium‘s second single) is a song about growing older and facing death — in particular, Tennant penned the lyrics to reflect his thoughts on the recent passing of both of his parents. He’s clever enough to veil the chorus with sentiment about a romantic interest ending a relationship (after all, this is a pop song). But the beautiful, string-laden track’s theme is clear on the verses: “Our love is dead, but the dead are here to stay / they made us what we are, they’re with us every day.”

One thing that separates Elysium from Tennant and Lowe’s previous 10 studio albums — and this is why they traveled to Los Angeles — is the unavoidable presence of famed backing vocalists Oren, Maxine, Luther and Julia Waters. They are sessions singers whose work stretches back to Motown in its ’60s heyday, and goes all the way up to Adele‘s 21 (where they appear on tracks like “One And Only” and “He Won’t Go”). “They’ve never done a record in Los Angeles before,” producer Dawson told Idolator in April. “They wanted to be around that thing, and get that classic L.A. sound — the L.A. players and all that stuff.”

Other Elysium tracks the Waters lend their wall-of-sound vocals to include self-evaluating electro number “Invisible,” the satirical “Ego Music” (we can’t help imagining the Boys are skewering either Lady Gaga or, dare we say it, Kanye himself here), the Carpenters-esque love song “Give It A Go” and album highlight/closer “Requiem In Denim And Leopardskin,” which finds the pair paying homage to their former makeup artist Lynne Eastman (not to mention name-checking a virtual Who’s Who of London’s rich and glamorous in the ’70s and ’80s).

But it’s not all doom and gloom here. “Memory Of The Future” is classic Pet Shop Boys, from its irresistible melody to the snaky disco beat, while “Your Early Stuff” finds the duo poking fun at the fact that they’re still hanging in the pop game, via lines Tennant says are, word-for-word, backhanded things taxi drivers have quipped to him over the years. And then there is, of course, the album’s first single “Winner,” as well as the stage musical-esque “Hold On” — two songs that surely stand out for having some of the most optimistic lyrics Neil has ever offered up.

To borrow from an overused cliche, Elysium is not the most immediately catchy Pet Shop Boys album, but it is “a grower.” And once its ornate arrangements do finally sink it, it’s hard not to realize the pair have crafted the perfect soundtrack to the fall months ahead.

The Best Song Wasn’t The Single: “A Face Like That” is Pet Shop Boys at their bar-raising best, both winking at the sound of their early material and challenging today’s crop of young artists to craft dance-pop that can be as emotionally stirring as this.

Pops Like: Neil and Chris’ introspective 1990 masterpiece Behaviour.

Best Listened To: While flipping through fashion mags at the coffee shop in October, taking a country drive to contemplate the death of a loved one and/or finally leaving the drunken disco nights behind for evenings spent indoors with good friends and a bottle of Bordeaux.

Full Disclosure: I’ve been a Pethead  since I bought “West End Girls” on 45 as a tween. Why, you might ask? To quote Jennifer Saunders, in character as Absolutely Fabulous‘ Edina Monsoon, “It’s the bloody Pet Shop Boys, sweetie!”

Idolator Rating: 4.5/5

— Robbie Daw