Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Super’: Album Review

Robbie Daw | April 1, 2016 8:46 am
It goes without saying that the Pet Shop Boys have never been ones to follow the conventional rules of pop. And with the British duo’s latest studio album entry Super (out today, ), Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe even find themselves bucking their own longstanding tradition of reacting to a previous LP with a record that sounds completely different. Super is, generally speaking, an extension of 2013’s aptly-titled foray back to the dance floor, Electric. Both were produced by Stuart Price (Madonna, The Killers) — thus fulfilling at least two-thirds of the promise Tennant made in a Guardian interview three years ago where he stated the three musicians would be making a trilogy of albums together. Not since the Pet Shop Boys’ so-called “imperial phase” of mid-to-late-1980s albums — Please, Actually and Introspective — have we heard the pair run with a sonic template and continue to build upon it.

Super, as flip of a title as that may seem, lives up to its own implication for the most part. Whereas Electric offered a curated set of nine dance tracks with an expanded running time, Super gives us a generous 12 songs: Nine in the time-honored verse-chorus-verse vein, and three that are largely beat-filled instrumentals, save for Tennant occasionally stopping by with a vocal refrain.

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“Happiness,” one of said mostly-instrumental numbers, sets the Super mood at the top of the album: Yes, you will be dancing, because this is, after all, the Pet Shop Boys. But there’s a darkness beneath the lyrical surface — “It’s a long way to happiness, a long way to go /But I’m gonna get there, boy, the only way I know” — because this is, after all, the Pet Shop Boys.

It’s a confounding notion for an act toiling in this thing called popular music to have the ability to consistently churn out top notch songs for 30 years and counting. And yet, on Super, there are several new Pet Shop Boys instant-classics lying in wait. Lead single “The Pop Kids” perfectly marries Tennant’s story-telling with Lowe’s penchant for heart-racing dance-pop. “Groovy,” an anthem for the selfie-obsessed, blends ’90s house flourishes with ’70s disco, and it works magnificently.

“Undertow” and “Burn” recall the Boys’ early days of Italo disco explorations on B-sides like “That’s My Impression” and “A Man Could Get Arrested.” With a nod at yet another B-side from the duo’s past, “Burn” also finds Tennant putting his falsetto front and center, echoing brilliant PSB track “Some Speculation.”

There are dueling centerpieces on Super, beginning with “The Dictator Decides,” which slows the pace down to a military march. As coincidental as it likely is, the seeming prescience on the PSB’s part to release a song with the following lines in the era of Donald’s Trump‘s political rise is kind of mind-blowing: “The joke is I’m not even a demagogue, have you heard me giving a speech? / My facts are invented, I sound quite demented, so deluded it beggars belief.” The Pet Shop Boys, make no mistake, are dealing in pop that’s quite super.

We’re whisked back to clubland with “Pazzo!” and “Inner Sanctum,” the other big-on-beats, short-on-words tracks. “Inner Sanctum” stands out as the strongest of the three largely instrumental numbers. Given hindsight, that one could have made for a far more assertive opening statement than “Happiness.”

From there, Super winds down with a grand streak of five straight-up pop cuts, including “Say It To Me” and album closer “Into Thin Air.” If we just glide along the surface of this record, you could single those two out as filler. But give them the chance to bloom with multiple listens, because “Into Thin Air” in particular reveals itself as quite a haunting end to what has turned out to be another impressive era in the Pet Shop Boys’ journey.

“Shall we get away from here, where no one can find us? / The north wind will blow us away, we’ll leave this all behind us,” Tennant considers on “Into Thin Air.”

It’s not the first time his lyrics have hinted at a possible end to the duo’s output. (See: Very‘s “Yesterday, When I Was Mad,” Bilingual‘s “To Step Aside” and, well, all of Elysium.) But in these days where “super” pop is a rare commodity, music still needs the Pet Shop Boys. And at least we know we have them for one more album.

Idolator score: 4/5

Robbie Daw

Pet Shop Boys’ new album Super is out now. Let us know your thoughts on it below, or by hitting us up on Twitter and Facebook!