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Music to slit your wrists to: reviewing the Pet Shop Boys’ Elysium

As with any Pet Shop Boys release from the last decade and a half — i.e. from 1996’s patchy Bilingual onwards — there is a tendency to worry if the latest opus is going to be, to quote a gem from that unfocused post-imperial phase that inexplicably didn’t make that LP, hit or miss. 

Issued ten years ago today, Elysium was the seminal duo’s eleventh studio album, and as with the other retro-fitted PSB album reviews on the past year, I’m reviewing it as if I’d hopped in a Tardis — this time going back in time to 2012. Time for a delve?

Now into their fourth decade, if there’s one summation of the Pet Shop Boys’ career it’s that there’s a longing, a romance and a cynical negative energy which seems to coexist in the duo’s wholly unique slice of synthpop sophistication. 

On Elysium, Tennant/Lowe’s 11th and mainly mid tempo studio set, the boys have decamped to Los Angeles for a Martini-like smooth excursion into the reflective and the depressive. Music to slit your wrists to could have been its subtitle, such is the mash-up between the Californian warmth of Andrew Dawson’s slightly incongruous production and the drab greyness of much of the material, some of which was recorded at the famed Capitol Studios that Sinatra’s ‘swinging suicide’ sets helped to build.

Tellingly, in Greek mythology Elysium is the idyll of the after-life. In Homer’s Odyssey, it’s described as a paradisiacal reward waiting for the godlike living a righteous existence. Indeed, the spectre of death hangs heavily over the content. Leaving is sublime and mournful as it searches for more than is good for it — a second verse for instance. That both Neil Tennant’s parents died since the PSB’s last studio set, 2009’s Xenomaniacal Yes, comes as scant surprise.

Wth its spiky, dark sonics the pretty if meandering Invisible poignantly vocalises old-age irrelevance. Also worth a listen is the fun meets funereal Requiem In Denim And Leopardskin (Swing Out Sister do Copacabana on a disco motorbike, with a namecheck for Adam Ant in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee), Memory Of The Future (wise and wistful) and A Face Like That, a punchy high-energy jam that sounds like, and is truly as good as, their imperial era early stuff. 

Talking of which, in the box marked ‘needs work’, there’s a couple of bitchy, quirky fun-on-the-first-listen interludes, in the shape of the Yesterday, When I Was Mad-like (but-this-time-without-a-tune) Your Early Stuff, and the Lady Gaga-baiting Ego Music (an eye-rolling veteran’s critique of the ‘state of pop’).

Breathing Space, however, is more boring than Being Boring, and so pedestrian it should never have been given air. And the less said about the horror that is Hold On the better. With its false bravado and sickly pomp, Winner, the LP’s lumpy lead single, is another smooth criminal. It’s about as victorious as Eddie The Eagle on crutches, and so obviously a cynical cash-in for the London 2012 Olympics it deserves to finish last and never be heard of again.

The album’s awkward juggling of self-doubt and spectacle makes for a clunky if slightly unexciting album then. Despite the sunny disposition of the cover art, Elysium pseudo follows in the tradition of The Beatles (White) and Prince (Black); it’s their Grey Album in all but name. 

Often, the set smacks of a slightly colourless cloud of worder by numbers, and it’s curious that Tennant’s usually erudite lyrics seethe with unalloyed bitterness. But worse than that, they’ve also become laconic and repetitive, so much so that they make Madonna’s look like Bob Dylan. Writer’s block or the buzzards circling? Either way, it feels like the entire record is permeated with various metaphors for the parting of the ways.  

This is the end? Let’s hope not.

Elysium Mehlysium.

Steve Pafford

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