Although still never ones to shy away from the overblown, it would seem that a slight wistfulness has come upon Britain’s premier conically-hatted synth poppers of late. Pet Shop Boys’ latest record, named after a space in Greek mythology where select mortals would spend the afterlife, seems like an almost subdued affair by Neal Tennant and Chris Lowe’s normal standards. However the theatre, wit, pomp and bombast still remain firmly, and reassuringly, intact. As you can probably guess from the title.
Coming a rough quarter of a century after their classic releases Please and Actually, Elysium, is a record of hints and contradictions; it could be a swansong, a retrospective, a self-serving tribute or a knowing take on both the beloved band's fans and career. What it definitely is, however, is a cohesive and strong effort that can stand up with some of their best.
A feeling of wistfulness is apparent from the outset. Opener ‘Leaving’ blasts in immediately with the duo's usual warm synthesiser, insistent beat and a chorus deeply rooted in pop and romance. “I know enough’s enough and you’re leaving/ you’ve had enough time to decide on your freedom” sings Neal Tennant in the chorus; a combined sense of hope and regret permeating the song and reminding the listener what emotionally evocative songwriters Pet Shop Boys can be.
As always however, the band's talent for evoking very human feelings is matched by their flair for garish and extravagant anthems. ‘The Winner’ is a uplifting but nonetheless faintly ludicrous track, with rousing hooks complimenting lyrics that, while apt and concise, are slightly too close to the Andrew Lloyd Webber Closing Number side of things. This musical theatre aspect is even more apparent on the harmony and backing vocals-sodden ‘Hold On’. With lyrical content reflecting humans’ role in imminent apocalypse and their ability to stop it, the song features an Oompa-Loompa style vocal performance by both a male and female choir, rendering what well meaning notion the Pet Shop Boys are trying to get across here awash with camp and novelty.
A shame really, because much the rest of the record is a more tasteful and droll affair; often satirising the industry that the band have been so prominent in over the years. Tracks such as ‘Your Early Stuff’ and ‘Ego Music’ lampoon both pop fandom and stardom, the former reflecting on past glories and the latter pondering the egoism and arrogance synonymous with pop stardom. In deadpan tones Tennant adopts a persona of a tragically delusional pop star: “Of course my music has always had a humanitarian vision, I think everybody knows that”.
Elysium is a record that is rooted in the artists’ experiences over the years; a wise and knowing homage to the life of a pop star. Final track ‘Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin’ feels like a closing number of a band's career, talking of “Ozzy’s last collection/ and Bieber’s closing sale” as though pop music itself is breathing its last breath. Reflected similarly in the aforementioned ‘Your Early Stuff', it seems the Pet Shop Boys are harkening back to their glory days and holding seemingly little regard for the future. However, with a record as good as it is, it's difficult to believe that both they and pop music aren’t alive and well.
8Jon Clark's Score