Friday, September 21, 2012


"Elysium", loosely named for Elysian Park, a green oasis in Los Angeles which offers an escape from the urban sprawl of the city, is the eleventh longplayer for Neil and Chris, collectively known as Pet Shop Boys for nearly 30 years.

The album is a turn away from the glitter synth stomp of previous album, "Yes". Therefore, with "Elysium", we find Neil and Chris in lush and low-key mode in a similar vein to "Behaviour" and "Release" after an extended period of laser sharp pop.

Like many artists and bands that have managed to maneuver through the pop landscape over a three decade career, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe find themselves in a significantly changed world. The music biz has been augmented by the dizzying world of social media, digital marketing, product portfolios and access-all-areas celebrity. How does a band famed for razor sharp wit, a slightly ironic bent and heartbreaking pathos carry on the manic, instant fix world of 2012?

Thankfully, ver Boys continue to move forward without much attention paid to their detractors. This has always allowed them to follow their musical instincts. They don't care if they're cool which, ironically, makes them very cool.

But this music biz malarkey can be a slippery slope. An artist's first elpee is usually the benchmark because it is the first. It's also, arguably, the most personal since they didn't have a fanbase until well after it had been released to an unsuspecting public.

Then the paradigm shift begins. Once success sets in, demands are placed on an artist or group. The label wants a surefire, successful follow up. The fans want more of the same. Something familiar to grab on to. And to expect a group like ver Boys to make the same album after 30 years is absurd. Following an artist on their journey is always fraught with unexpected, and sometime unwarranted, twists and turns. Ultimately, the creative soul needs to be fed and left to wander in its natural direction.

Some fans have been less than enthusiastic about a more mellow PSB longplayer. However, they should be reminded that an artist follows their creative vision. With rare exception, they should never listen to fans. If they did that, an artist would make the same album over and over again. Their audience would tire of them rather quickly. Instead, a group like PSB bend, twist and shape as they evolve. This is what makes longstanding artist thrive and their audience grow with them.

Of course, as time goes on and the journey continues, a group like PSB will always appeal to their core fanbase gaining less and less new followers along the way. Much like their alumni - Depeche Mode, The Cure and New Order - they thrive on their dedicated followers.

Enough about their demographics. Let's dig into the songs on "Elysium".

"Leaving", the opener, is one of the album's highlights. This is a perfect example in which "Elysium" is neither "Behaviour" nor "Release". Although, languid and serene, it isn't heavily electronic like the Harold Faltermeyer produced "Behaviour" and certainly doesn't flirt with the acoustic leaning arrangements of "Release". Therefore, "Elysium" stands on its own merits without ever being a pastiche or rehashing of their past work.

Sparse synths and low-key beats continue with "Invisible". The minimal arrangement, a cornerstone of "Elysium", allows Neil's vocal to stand out in front of the production. That gives the songs, many of which hint at mortality and the passing of time, a sense of fragility. Also, the lack of overt instrumental flourishes allow the listener to focus more on Neil's lyrics and their delivery. It enhances the grand beauty which envelops most of the album.

Then on to "Winner", the first official single from "Elysium". It's a bit chirpy following on from the somewhat sombre and eerie tone of "Invisible". As suspected, the song sounds better in context of the entire album.

Still, it's not one of my favorite singles ver Boys have issued, but I love the fact that they were inspired to write it as a tribute to the Eurovision Song Contest. With that knowledge, the song actually has grown on me a bit. With "Winner", the musical and lyrical references give the song a bit more weight and the sense of wry humor is more present given the topic.

"Your Early Stuff" is typically self-referential and self-mocking, which PSB do quite quite well. Mining a similar lyrical vein to "Yesterday, When I Was Mad" from "Very", this tango-esque number is based around outside observations and conversations which plague many artists of a certain age when their chart fortunes have somewhat faded after the white heat of their regal period.

The mood breaks on "Face Like That", a dark yet somewhat sparkly uptempo number which, with its chugging bass line and revved up siren synth line, sounds like it could have been easily at home on "Please" or "Actually". It's the one way back, retro PSB moment. The clanging cowbell, happy clappy rhythm and synth break at the beginning sound like a close relative to "Heart". To these ears, it sounds like it should be the third single from "Elysium".

Then the energy level is brought way back down to the pace of the rest of the album with "Breathing Space", a beautiful ballad. Very simple and straightforward.

Another slightly jarring moment follows when "Ego Music", an adroitly, outwardly observant track which lambastes today's vacuous celebrity culture. Quirky and jittery, it shows Neil's ability to for penning clever lyrics delivered with healthy dose of searing humor. Together, with "Your Early Stuff", PSB have throw down the gauntlet on a full scale indictment of the music biz. The next big things may come and go, but even through the stormiest of seas the most clever and creative remain.

The complete opposite can be said of "Hold On", one of the worst songs in the PSB cannon. It baffles the mind as to why this was not tossed onto a b-side. It's dull, insipid and overwrought with substandard West End vocal arrangements. It's a great big thud in the middle of an otherwise beautiful album.

"Give It A Go" is a groovy invitation to a potential suitor with a bit of a sixties swing to it. It has a sexy undertone with a slight lyrical tension which is all the more intriguing when you realize it's being sung by a 58 year old man. It gives the lyric a beautiful innocence and intelligence which could not be preformed by an artist in their youth. Very poignant for some of us in the over 40 crowd.

And that's where PSB have achieved something many heritage artists haven't. They have grown older with grace. There is a relationship with their core audience. Sometimes, an artist will try too hard to remain relevant to a younger audience. The key is to remain relevant to your ardent fanbase. You do this by simply growing with them. U2 and Madonna might want to rip a page out of the PSB playbook.

As we saunter into the sunset of the album's tracklisting, we get "Memory Of The Future", one of the more electronic tracks on "Elysium". It's another song about longing and the passage of time. Clearly, this is ver Boys in reflective mood. Experience in song, perhaps?

"Everything Means Something" is one of the more menacing tracks on the elpee which seems to be one where the protagonist and antagonist have a passive aggressive conversation within the context of the lyrics. The clever production changes and time signature shifts further accentuate the two sides of the conversation.

At the close of the album is the closest we get to a bang up to date version of "Being Boring". An elegy for a someone who has passed on. A gorgeous tribute to a fallen friend. Thoughtful and celebratory. Intelligent and sincere. No detail spared including the sound of their friend's motorcycle trailing off at the end.

And that's what makes "Elysium" a joyful listen. It's human. Among all of their work, under the sound of machines, Pet Shop Boys remain human at their core. This is the main reason they have retained such a strong fanbase. The music touches the lives of the listener which has always been and must remain one of the main tenets of popular music.

"Elysium" is a reflection of PSB's microcosm which, at its core, is what moves so many of us in our daily live. The album is an amalgamation of the thoughts, fears, triumphs, challenges and questions that swirl around our universe and thread us all together.


  1. I still am not able to wrap my head around "Winner" which I think may wind up being my least favorite PSB track ever. I'm working on my own take of the album remixing it using the UK release with the bonus instrumental disc. Interesting that the first track is about a final separation as is the last track. I'm thinking of cutting and pasting that cycle sound to the beginning of the album so it runs full circle.

  2. I think your review of Elysium is pretty spot on Vinny. PSB have a wonderful knack of reminding you who they are with every release without repeating their past work.
    Placing Leaving as the opener was genius and lets the listener know right from the start that this album is something special.
    Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin is already one of my all time favorite PSB tracks.
    Invisible is almost trippy in its ambience and smoothness.
    Your Early Stuff and Ego Music are a wonderful indictment of the industry which they find themselves a part of.
    Finally I have to agree that Hold On makes me scratch my head. I get the concept of a pop anthem built around a classical choral motif, but it ends up sounding a bit too We Are The World for me.

  3. Such a beautiful review, Vinny, and a spot-on rejoinder to fans who want them to keep re-writing It's a Sin. Like Regularjoe, I still think Winner is crap (although the instrumental and HappySad mix are ace). They should have given it to someone else to record.

  4. I agree, spot on review. I've delved into the album many times over the last few weeks and it's definitely settled on me. Like most, I abhorred Winner from the start, but the HappySad mix made it listenable. Hold On - certainly a mis-step in my opinion, I too think perhaps they got absorbed in the idea of the Handel piece as pop, but it's just too theatrical to be taken seriously in this context. They should have replaced it with Way Through the Woods, which feels perfect with the other songs.
    I dont love Leaving and the remixes are leaving me very cold and ambivalent - although I've high expectations for the HappySad mix. Personally, I think they could have taken a leaf from the Xenomania songwriting style-book with the Leaving chorus and written another melody line or lyric as it's too repetitive for me. It's a solid song though.
    I wonder what the next single will be? Initially, I thought Face like that, but now I think it'll be Memory of the Future or more likely, Breathing Space (which I think is stunning).
    Good times to be a PSB fan though.