ELYSIUM, or the Elysian Fields, was the afterlife paradise where the great and the godlike of ancient Greece would spend their eternal leisure.
Perhaps, in titling their latest album thus, the Pet Shop Boys have their eye on a blissful retirement. If so, they have more than earned it for their services to sparkling, playful, flamboyant, bittersweet, charming, plaintive and articulate pop music.
Their outlandish appearance at the Olympics’ closing ceremony confirmed that there is still mischief left in the fiftysomething duo, but they are definitely in a more contemplative headspace on their 11th album, making frequent reference to the passing of time (and relevance). Elysium is overall a rather subdued affair, comparable in mood, if not in quality, to their 1990 album Behaviour. Chris Lowe has even referred to it as “the infirm album”.
Its professed theme of “death with optimism” is exemplified by Leaving, which opens the album on a sophisticated high. There is a fluid elegance to this requiem for a relationship which won’t quite give up the ghost, with Neil Tennant smoothly intoning “our love is dead – but the dead are still alive in memory and thought and the context they provide”, making easy, natural work of its wordiness.
Invisible continues the graceful line, with Tennant reflecting on his obsolescence: “Whatever I’ve said and done doesn’t matter in this chatter and hum, I’m invisible.” Whether by accident or design, the soft, sleepy backing of aqueous synths and barely-there strings does indeed make this otherwise eloquent song easy to overlook.
Ironically, their rote Olympic single Winner, purporting to celebrate endeavour, sounds like it was dashed off during a tea break, with its lazy lyrics and sluggish momentum. Apparently the duo considered this below-par offering as possible Eurovision fodder. If the Pet Shop Boys ever do dip their toes in those troubled waters, let’s hope that it is with a far superior song.
Face Like That, the most upbeat number here, is equally formulaic, more of a remix than a song with its vaguely hi-NRG (mid-NRG?) flavour. Lyrically, it sounds more like an ego massage than a declaration of ardour. Tennant uses stormy imagery but it is merely a light breeze in terms of impact.
The album takes a further dip with Breathing Space. This wet lettuce of a ballad about taking time out from the daily grind reads like a greeting card homily and conveys a sense of the stifling only in its boredom.
Hold On is no better, with Tennant offering bland encouragement over a shuffling beat and a Handel melody picked out cheesily on keyboards by Lowe. There is at least a sweetness to the otherwise half-baked Give It A Go which borrows a Motown rhythm – along with the sentiment of The Supremes’ Come See About Me – then follows its own advice by settling for second best. Tennant also drifts catatonically through Memory of the Future, a would-be wistful, romantic tribute to late blooming love, and the robotic ripples of Everything Means Something.
Fortunately, they prove they can still flex their satirical pop muscles on a couple of arch numbers, particularly the eminently quotable Ego Music which rips into self-absorbed pop stars and the oxygen of hubris provided by social media (one of the Pets’ pet hates). The banal jingle of a chorus won’t put it up there with their best larks but the verses are so spot-on in their spoofery that they could have been lifted from an interview with one of your actual delusional pop stars.
“In the sea of negativity, I’m the statue of liberty,” Tennant drones with alacrity. I wonder if the glorious line “I see myself as a building, my mind is the office where the work gets done” could have been lifted from one of those old Smash Hits Q&As, where Tennant, in his previous life as a pop writer, would ask the likes of Bananarama: “Have you ever thought you were a city centre?”
He returns to the theme of obsolescence on Your Early Stuff, which collates some favourite comments made to him by taxi drivers in recent years (“those old videos look pretty funny, what’s in it for you now – need the money?”), while the closing Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin is a fond farewell to his generation of pop musician – and also, by implication, to the industry as he used to know it – soundtracked by sumptuous strings and Bacharachian horns.
Tennant sounds genuinely wistful at the realisation that he and Lowe are now out of step with their beloved genre. Long may it be so - they have already achieved pop immortality.
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