Finally, I think I’ve owned this album for long enough to form a proper opinion. It seems like a good way to kick off the new year, too.
You’ll have gathered by now that I’m very fond of Pet Shop Boys. The first album I owned was Discography, and I spent most of my teenage years discovering their older material and being very pleased every time they put out something new.
Do we need a recap of their history? Probably not. I came on board during the period which is commonly regarded as their second “imperial phase”, when the perfect album Very was being promoted in 1993. Follow-up Bilingual (1996) is less strong, but has an excellent summer feel which is difficult not to enjoy. By Nightlife (1999) it’s harder to deny that they were losing their grip somewhat. I’ll defend this and later albums to the hilt, but it’s fair to say that they were struggling commercially.
Release (2002) followed, with its guitar flavoured pop, after which they seem to have become more conscious of their music careers. Fundamental (2006) is a very clear attempt to revisit their overproduced eighties sound, which for me fails on a number of levels. Yes (2009) is a perfect pop album in the tradition of Actually and Very, which only fails for feeling as though it was designed as a pop album.
Elysium feels, therefore, as though it’s Pet Shop Boys‘ most honest album for a long time. Rather than trying to record an album that is going to sell well and keep other people happy, they seem to have recorded what was in their hearts, and this is what makes it extremely strong. Because of this, there have been inevitable comparisons to Behaviour, but I don’t think that’s fair. Elysium is introspective (with a little ‘i’) and it’s a perfect album for the fans who have been with PSB for all these years, but I don’t think it’s going to win them many new listeners.
It opens with its second single, a captivating track called Leaving, which I gather reminds everyone of something. For me its laid back but powerful rhythm takes me back to 1999’s ridiculously titled I don’t know what you want but I can’t give it any more. And that’s a very good thing, as that was always one of my personal favourites.
The second track Invisible was released to YouTube earlier this year as a taster for the album, and it was an inspired choice. Slower and more gentle than anything on their last couple of albums, Neil Tennant‘s vocal has a wonderful fragility which Pet Shop Boys don’t actually often expose, and the backing soundscapes (apparently influenced in some way by Los Angeles, although it’s difficult to see how) draw out the melancholy beautifully. It’s easily one of their best tracks ever, which is a bold claim, but one I’m going to stand by!
The first single Winner follows, and I’m going to defend it again. A lot of fans got very upset about it, I think mostly because they thought it was about the Olympics and it was released to cash in at the time. But it isn’t, it’s actually about Eurovision, and anyway if you ignore that it’s actually a fun little pop song, which is one of PSB’s trademarks. And what’s wrong with that?
Your early stuff is a fun highlight. The lyrics are all things which have been said to Tennant by taxi drivers, and you can see immediately why being told these kinds of things might start to get annoying after a while. As always, the lyrics are delivered with tongue firmly lodged in cheek, and the result is a quite charming little song. A face like that is pure pop, and for me fails a little only because of the subject matter of the lyrics – another This must be the place I waited years to leave this is not.
The next few tracks seem to take you on a voyage through PSB’s back catalogue. Breathing space is beautiful and charming with echoes of some of their more mellow moments. Ego music harks back to Shameless (1993) or How can you expect to be taken seriously? (1990). Hold on is haunted by the ghosts of Go West (1993), Happiness is an option (1999) and All over the world (2009). Which sounds like a criticism – are Pet Shop Boys running out of ideas? I’d say it’s more fair to say that this is what they sound like when they’re being true to themselves.
The best track on the album, and in many ways the most surprising as well, is Memory of the future, with its quite astonishingly beautiful lyric “Over and over again / I keep tasting that sweet madeleine.” There’s a little concealed bitterness and some regret, but also a lot of hope for the future. In a way it’s difficult to know what to say about the song, except that I think everyone will identify with the sentiment. If you wanted to compress the perfect pop lyric into a formula, I think this would tick a lot of the boxes.
The final track is Requiem in denim and leopardskin, which for some reason sounds to me as though it should have been a b-side to one of their early singles. The rhythm has shades of the 1980s in it, but it’s the chorus lyrics for me which transport me back to their early b-sides album Alternative. There’s something quite wonderful about it, but I’m not sure I can quite put my finger on what it is. Apparently it was rejected from their last album Yes, and you can sort of see why it might fit better on Elysium than its predecessor.
If nothing else, Elysium is consistent. Where some of their previous albums have struggled at times – even Behaviour had weaker moments on its second side, their latest album never seems to have any such problem. It’s a reward for those who have been on long journeys with Pet Shop Boys, and it’s quite fantastic for all of that.
If you want an entirely unnecessary CD of instrumental versions which you’re never going to listen to, track down the limited edition version. If not, you can get it with a commentary with David Walliams off of Little Britain from iTunes.