PET SHOP BOYS: YES *** PARLOPHONE
THE Pet Shop Boys once joked, with a kind of perverse pride, that they were constantly out of step with the times. At the height of Britpop's flag-waving, they had released Bilingual, an album that wore its internationalism on its sleeve and featured copious amounts of samba drumming. Later, when the synthpop they had virtually trademarked was back in fashion, they made Release, which saw them exploring guitars and "real" instruments more than ever before.
From such canny operators, it sounded a little disingenuous. The fact is, Release and Bilingual were their weakest albums, and people reacted accordingly. If Yes doesn't do well, there can be no such excuses. The timing couldn't be better for a Pet Shop Boys comeback, after all – synthpop is, inescapably, the sound of 2009.
Lily Allen's new album sounds exactly like the Pet Shop Boys, smart lyrics and all. Synthpoppers Little Boots, Dan Black, La Roux and Ladyhawke are all tipped for stardom. Production house Xenomania continue to have huge success making Girls Aloud singles obviously modelled on the Pet Shop Boys. The Killers still can't decide whether they want to be the Pet Shop Boys or U2, so veer awkwardly between both. At times recently it's felt like it was all part of an elaborate plan to prepare the ground for Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe's glorious comeback. It would have felt odd if anyone else had won the outstanding achievement award at the Brits this year.
The climax to all this is Yes. For better or worse, it's exactly what you might expect a Pet Shop Boys album to sound like in 2009. It's got good tunes, fans will be glad to hear, but they're old tunes. Often it plays so safe that it feels like a tribute to their other albums, occasionally verging on self-parody. Did You See Me Coming? continues a grand PSB tradition of sexual innuendo in song titles (see also: Love Comes Quickly, So Hard, I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind Of Thing), and Vulnerable is a sad story about a needy diva that sounds as they're still subconsciously writing with Liza Minnelli or Dusty Springfield in mind. There is the usual shameless intellectual showing off: a reference to Gerhard Richter thrown into an otherwise routine lyric just to show they've heard of Gerhard Richter; an intro that samples The Nutcracker; two songs that reference ancient Rome; and a bit in French, just because they can. Plus a change…
For many PSB sceptics, all this will be further evidence that they are the self-satisfied clever-clogs of pop, and are taken far more seriously than they should be. For many devoted fans, it will be proof that they remain pop geniuses, bringing intelligence, melancholy and big ideas to a kind of music that is too often shallow and bland.
The truth is somewhere in the middle. For a band whose lyrics are famously sharp, even era-defining – few pop songs have dissected 1980s materialism as eloquently as Shopping and Rent, or HIV-related death and grief as movingly as Being Boring or Your Funny Uncle – the Pets seem to have very little to say on Yes, an album that consists, for the most part, of routine love songs.
Current single Love Etc, for example, reveals that money – wait for it – doesn't make you happy the way love does. Co-written with Xenomania, it is, lyrically, less clever than Girls Aloud, which is not a good sign. Tellingly, one of the album's most insightful lyrics is one that's actually about pop lyrics – All Over The World's description of successful love songs as "sincere and subjective, superficial and true, easy and predictable, exciting and new" brilliantly summarises the basic appeal of pop. But it doesn't really describe All Over The World, which is neither exciting nor new.
You wonder, often, whether the Pets – one of Britain's most successful pop bands ever, lest we forget – have lost their nerve. Their last album saw them employing Diane Warren, hitmaker to Cher and Celine Dion, resulting in the album's dullest song, Numb. Xenomania are a better fit, but if you didn't know which three songs they co-wrote, you'd never guess. Nothing about Yes suggests their help was actually needed.
In the end, this is the Pet Shop Boys' equivalent of David Bowie's Heathen or Morrissey's You Are The Quarry – a long-established band in their comfort zone, offering minor variations on old songs rather than anything new, but occasionally reminding you of why that comfort zone is still worth a visit.
Closing track Legacy, for example, is a song about loss and acceptance as richly evocative in its use of British place names as Blur's This Is A Low.
"Look at me, I'm SO over it," sings Tennant at the end, somehow giving a potentially daft line gravitas and poignancy. (I remember now – no-one does this particular trick as well as them. That's why I liked them.)