When Pet Shop Boys reappeared with Electric in 2013, it was the shortest gap between albums in their career. Despite that, it seemed like a new beginning – leaving their former career-long label Parlophone and starting afresh with their own label, their comeback took place just nine months after its predecessor. Even the artwork seemed fresher, younger, and more modern.
There is, as many people have said before me, nothing new under the sun. With Elysium (2012), there had been a clear attempt to revitalise the lush beauty of Behaviour (1990), and so one way of looking at Electric would be that it was ostensibly an attempt to revisit Introspective (1988). Finding new form by revisiting the past isn’t anything new either.
Maybe part of the reason for the freshness in their new sound was the collaboration with Stuart Price, the electro-dance genius behind Les Rythmes Digitales, and so it was welcome news shortly after Electric appeared that this would be a trilogy. Trilogies are not, of course, something that Pet Shop Boys do. They never even really worked with the same producer more than once or twice, until now.
Either way, Electric was great – maybe you don’t agree that it was flawless, but at least it sounded fresh and different. The tracks were long, and breaking the mould of the last couple of decades, there weren’t twelve of them on the album – there were only nine. There was Thursday, a beautifully epic weekend piece with Example as a guest vocalist, and there was even a cover of a Bruce Springsteen track.
Three years would pass before the follow-up, and what’s interesting listening to Super (2016) is just how good it is. I think I realised that when it first came out, but fell out of love with it for a while. Somehow it felt like a pale imitation of Electric, but that’s not fair – if the first album was the underground dance entry in the trilogy, then this is the synthpop one, but that doesn’t mean it’s vacuous. In retrospect, our expectations were probably just a bit raised after Electric. The pop kids is a fabulous lead single, and Twenty-something typically incisive.
Creativity takes time sometimes, and so the third entry in the series, Hotspot, took another four years to appear, finally turning up in early 2020. I haven’t reviewed it yet here, mainly because I don’t think I’ve really digested it yet. It has many of the signature sounds of the previous pair, but it’s really the odd one out in many ways – this is the concept album in the series. For the most part, it’s Pet Shop Boys‘ ode to Berlin, and as I’ll probably explain when I do get around to reviewing it, that makes it very special to me. But then you suddenly get Burning the heather, a song that seems much more at home at Neil Tennant‘s rural home in the north of England. It’s funny – I feel as though I understand this album pretty well, and I would defend it to the hilt, but it also seems a bit of a mess in places.
What strikes me is that the end of this trilogy puts us at a natural endpoint for Pet Shop Boys. I hope that’s not true – I hope this is just the closing of another chapter, but it feels as though they’ve given us some classic, revitalised Pet Shop Boys over the course of this trilogy, and now they’re working with young retro remixers, recording unreleased songs from before they were famous, and giving us an album where the only clear statement seems to be “this is our life right now”. Of course, in a sense, that’s all any album ever is, and so whatever the next chapter holds, it could be very interesting indeed.
Please take a moment to look back at my reviews of Elysium and Electric. It looks as though I haven’t quite got around to Super yet, and I’ll try to get onto Hotspot as soon as I feel I’m ready.