'That Carphone Warehouse boy's been on the phone / he wants to upgrade the mobile you own...'On 9th April it will be 25 years since the iconic pop anthem West End Girls justifiably became a hit, albeit a club hit in Los Angeles and San Francisco. And here we are now with the release of their tenth studio album, Yes. And judging by the collection of songs here the combined genius of Messrs Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe remains undiminished. Joining them are the Xenomania production team and their own resident pop czar, Brian Higgins who co-wrote three songs on the album, the redoubtable Johnny Marr and Last Shadow Puppets arranger and strings boffin Owen Pallett. This is a significant return to form and most reviewers agree that it's their best since Very in 1993. Not only does the songwriting and production hit the same giddy heights here but there are also satisfying echoes of the halcyon days of Actually (known as the 'Imperial Phase' in PSB circles) and some of the mature compositions of Behaviour, perhaps one of their most seriously underrated albums.
'you need more than the Gerhard Richter hanging on your wall'Things get off to a cracking start with the current single Love Etc, co-written with Xenomania who add their customary sheen to all three songs on the album. It's got that great chanting chorus and those lilting, melancholic melodies as well as an acidic swipe lyrically at the vacuous but greedy lives of the well to do and the famous for not being famous. The irony, and it wouldn't be a Pets album without massive dollops of irony would it, is that Tennant not only points out that these lives are devoid of the one thing they can't get more of, namely 'love' but that the playing field is pretty much level these days when it comes to pointless acquisition. As with much of Tennant's lyrics the sharp wit is to the fore and 'you need more than the Gerhard Richter hanging on your wall' is worth its weight in gold here. And only the Pets would dare to slap Tchaikovsky in with a hip-hop beat and handclaps for All Over The World. Again, the Pets obsessions about the power of cheap music and its appeal to genders of many hues are present and correct here. 'It's sincere and subjective, superficial and true' sighs Neil. Does he mean pop, love, sex or all three?
Owen Pallett gets the strings going full tilt on Beautiful People and Neil dreams of a life far away as a wonderful Mamas and Papas influenced California sound permeates the song. It's all about aspiration, as all good pop songs usually are, and Marr even throws in a very Midnight Cowboy style harmonica as counterpoint. It's a lovely, summery, shimmery big slab of gorgeous pop. Smashing string and brass flourish at the end. Marr's jaunty pop sensibilities also inform Did You See Me Coming? which is another of those Pets songs about relationships that happen through fate or by accident. A perfectly good bit of throwaway pop that keeps the upbeat flavour of the album ticking over with another infectious chorus and melody.
'Who d'you think you are, Captain Britain?'
Vulnerable is classic Pets and is one of the strongest tracks on the album. This harks back to Actually and Behaviour in its construction and melodic flavour. It's beautiful with a very hooky chorus and a sad lyric about living in the public eye and loving in private. Neil's concerns about the fine line between how we conduct ourselves in private and public surface here. Pulsing electronics, acoustic guitar and tinkling percussion capture the melancholic sweep of this perfectly. More Than A Dream, another co-written piece with Xenomania, is an insistent pop fable that celebrates aspiration, change and dreams with a seductive, glossy disco production. Not the strongest song on the album but I guarantee the melody line will be going round your head for days. At this point things start to go strange (in a good way).
Building A Wall is an hilarious call and response between Neil and Chris with a nightmarish lyric about the indomitable British spirit in the face of the Cold War accompanied with jangly guitar from Marr. Tennant grumps about the state of the nation...'sand in the sandwiches, wasps in the tea, it was a free country' to which Chris cheekily counters with 'Who d'you think you are, Captain Britain?'. This brings back memories of the anxieties catalogued on Very and captures a quintessential British attitude to the madness of detente. Owen Pallett adds a swish of gorgeous strings to the very haunting and 10cc-ish King Of Rome. Neil's singing is particularly evocative on this tale of a lonely man searching for meaning in his life. This is pure Pets, with slabs of synth, little flares of synthetic brass punctuating the melody and piano breaks. Stunningly lovely and very moving with its plaintive chorus of 'Oh, baby call me, baby call me...today'. It's back to Very with the rumbling charge of Pandemonium, a Sixties Chain Reaction pastiche meets Doctor Who inspired stomp about a love-hate relationship where one partner copes with a lover who creates chaos everywhere but secretly loves it all. Great backing vocals, smashing bits of harmonica, squelchy synthesisers and Moroder style sequencers. Great fun.
'from York Minster to the Firth of Forth'
Quite possibly the finest thing they've written is The Way It Used To Be. This has a very melancholic feel right off Behaviour. And it captures the Pets other great quality in the way that Neil uses the past, nostalgia and memories to act as a salve for the future. It could have come from late period Abba in the way it describes a tale of betrayed love with its lilting piano chords. The weird electronics two thirds in are fabulous and the Xenomania sheen, especially the female harmony vocal, is a perfect match for the Pets writing. Superb. The album ends with a further out on a limb composition, Legacy, a fusion between the elegiac qualities of Behaviour and their soundtrack to Potemkin coupled with swirls of musical theatre. Neil's vocal on this is marvellous too. It's a montage composition telling of police arrests, armies being raised in the North, 'from York Minster to the Firth of Forth' (very West End Girls), lots of brass and strings as well as jittery electronics. 'Public opinion may not be on your side / there are those who think / they've been taken for a ride' suggests Tennant is working through his Labourite disappointment with Tony Blair and his decision to join the Iraq War. The continuing refrain of 'you'll get over it' is either his sympathy with the public's political disenfranchisement, or a snippet of his own internal thoughts. It's an idiosyncratic way to end the album, will probably puzzle a great many, but it secretly thrills me that it's a through line from It Couldn't Happen Here and My October Symphony all the way here to Legacy.
A terrific pop album, returning to many classic Tennant and Lowe themes, both musically and lyrically - celebrity culture, the public/private dividing line, nostalgia, Englishness, class politics, the puritan work ethic. It's full of lovely melodies, chord structures, musical pastiche and demonstrates clearly that they are the last bastion of classic British pop songwriting. Anyone who can mention Gerhard Richter, The Man From Uncle, Captain Britain, Carphone Warehouse and 'Northern pain' on one album gets my vote. Welcome back, Neil and Chris.
YES - Pet Shop Boys (Parlophone 6953452 - Released 23rd March 2009)
Cathode Ray Tube Pet Shop Boys Yes