Album review: Pet Shop Boys – Super

John Preston

John Preston

South London based music obsessive with strong opinions about most things. Doubts Madonna has another good record in her but would love more than anything to be proved wrong.
John Preston

In the second of what will be a triptych of albums produced by Stuart Price, the Pet Shop Boys return with more of the same.

Not meant as a criticism – the fact that the duo are still making smart, engaging and instantly recognisable music is genuinely astounding – but Super‘s job appears to be carrying on where 2013’s Electric left off.

Return to form is a phrase that is frequently used too readily and is often confused with nostalgic longing for a turn to a sound that captured a previous generation’s hearts and minds. Electric was indeed a return to form for the Pet Shop Boys.

Following a decade’s worth of sub-par music – previously they had set their own bar almost impossibly high so only had themselves to blame – it was an album that was outrageously assertive, self-possessed and energetic.

The Pet Shop Boys have said that the current mechanisms of the music industry have allowed them to experiment more and that Super, partly at least, is an outcome of this. It’s hard, though, to see where the album’s genres and attitude (house and disco synth-pop, lots of snark, melancholia), and lyrical themes (love, dancing, Europe, youth) differ from anything that we have already heard from them over the last three-and-a-half decades.

The first quarter of Super‘s songs differ certainly from Electric‘s lengthy and plush disco extravaganzas.

It’s jokey and irreverent, and all but one track are under four minutes. Even attempts at well established PSB tricks and tics (spelling out the title of ‘Happiness’, the familiar cowbell break on the too on-the-nose ‘The Pop Kids’) fail to distract from the throwaway feel of the songs.

They aren’t bad but neither are they essential, and it’s not until the fifth track in that Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe really find a groove, mood and – most importantly – a song that is worthy of their best work.

With a rolling and suitably military-firing drum machine – insisting on a majestic and unhurried introduction that picks up stings and a warm sadness along the way – at the 01:33 second mark, ‘The Dictator Decides’ finally finds its voice. Tennant assumes the role of the depressed dictator and does not disappoint (‘Oh, please, will somebody put me out of my misery? This sad old dictator must sooner or later flee so that you can be free’) and just when you think the song is over it starts back up again to briefly feature a ghostly and gradually disintegrating aria.

‘Undertow’ is the album’s one true banger, an electro-pop stormer which has less of a house influence than some of the other tracks here, as well as a melodic simplicity and butter-wouldn’t-melt hooks which sound effortless but are always difficult to truly master.

Italo house track ‘Say It to Me’ is a good album track – not filler but not single material either – and a category that the duo have always understood the importance of when making albums that are episodic and coherently diverse in mood and texture.

‘Burn’ (as in, this disco down) is a Euro-disco highlight that has Super‘s most PSB-sounding intro. Meanwhile, the genre-blend of Bobby Orlando high-energy synth-washes and late-90s trance on the semi-instrumental ‘Inner Sanctum’ is wonderfully produced and a gradual grower.

Stuart Price indeed comes into his own as producer on the second, and better, half of the album and guides beautiful, spacious moments on tracks like album closer ‘Into the Air’ impeccably.

The final PSB collaborative effect with Stuart Price has already been confirmed as a retreat from the dance floor and a total surrender to balladry and fully-blown melancholia.

There isn’t really a slow song, per se, on Super. The Royksopp-like ‘Sad Robot World’ comes closest, but like so many of the Pet Shop Boy’s tracks the only thing that determines the genre of the song is the particular sonic decision used to back it instrumentally.

Robyn excels at this also (‘Dancing with Myself’ is a model example: it’s a slow, sad song set to throbbing synths and drum machines) and it will be interesting to see the one-time masters of this fare now, especially following the soggy misfire of 2012’s Elysium.

Until then, though, we have Super, which is another good record and a solid late-career album from Tennant and Lowe. A dance record which won’t get played in many clubs – an irony, maybe, but one the Pet Shop Boys would surely love.

Related Post