As with any Pet Shop Boys release from the last decade — 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. Thankfully, on Fundamental there’s more hits than misses, if not surefire smashes. Following in the tradition of The Beatles and Prince, it’s their Black Album in all but name.
Fundamental follows the pop duo’s poorly received disco musical Closer To Heaven, which was swiftly supplanted by a baffling Release, an ill-advised indie excursion into Coldplay territory, replete with mushy acoustic guitar ballads and all. Despite the sonic similarities and even the use of the same mix engineer it sold about one per cent of their Devon label mates’ offering. So in 2006 this can mean two things: either it can’t get any worse, or the downward trajectory of creativity continues apace. That Team PSB have been drumming up interest in the album since before Christmas last year suggests there’s panic stations at Parlophone. Moreover, with such a long lead-in, certain mixes and the running order has been fiddled with (to the record’s detriment, I’d offer) since those early promo copies went out.
Secondly, for only the second time in their career, initial quantities of the LP come with a bonus dance disc. But whereas Relentless was appended to Very in order to score a long overdue chart-topper for the Boys (which worked, thank God), the less cohesive Fundamentalism seems more of an attempt in maintaining the duo’s unbroken run of top 10 albums.
Other than a Richard X-helmed epic called Fugitive which seems to hint at 9/11 suicide bombers (just wait till The Sun get hold of that one) there’s little to write home about; certainly not the desecration of the once brilliant In Private, which has turned the magnificent Motownish 45 they gifted Dusty Springfield into a catastrophic karaoke pub duet between Neil Tennant and a boorish over-singing Elton John. George and Aretha they’re not. In fact, you’d be hard pushed to find two voices that gel less.
Thirdly, Fundamental’s first single, the splendidly titled I’m With Stupid, did little to raise my expectations. Another in what appears to be a series of contemporary Pet Shop Boys songs depicting PM Tony Blair as a hapless lover in thrall to a perfidious partner, delivered as always with withering aplomb. It’s grown on me, despite the cheap as chips Little Britain video and the, I assume, intentionally lazy, moronic chorus.
So what is good?
Thankfully, there are far better songs on the album, though I must say sparse paranoia of Psychological, with its insistent motorik pulse and theme of eerie dread, is a strange way to open an album. (On the promo, that honour fell to the brief instrumental God Willing — a much more evocative scene setter by far.)
At times, Fundamental almost feels like a song cycle: a well crafted consistent and considered suite with its overtly social commentary touching on everything from regime change to immigration, ID cards and the politics of fear. All of which makes the album’s combination of synth-driven exuberance and sly smarts particularly gratifying. The former comes largely courtesy of one of Tennant/Lowe’s collaborators on 1988’s Introspective, Trevor Horn. His production is warm, lush, layered and grandiose, though it’s intriguing just how fully formed the pair of pre-produced demos the duo have made available as bonus tracks on Apple’s iTunes are.
Fundamental contains a dozen tracks, and for an act famous for their adherence to one-word album titles, for the first time a third of the content is similarly restricted to a singular moniker. Integral is sinister retro Hi-NRG, Minimal is Kraftwerk meets Eifel 65 played out with a rumbling Hooky-style bass outro, while Numb, an incongruous Diane Warren-penned hold-over from their 2003 PopArt singles project, merely adequate.
Much of the material is given over to slow and mellow contemplations with atmospheric if slightly over-the-top string arrangements (by Horn’s long-time orchestral cohort Anne Dudley of ABC and Art Of Noise fame), coupled with sweetly subtle arpeggios that fit the mood of mournful melancholia that occupies much of the record. Take, for instance, Indefinite Leave To Remain, where its introductory brass chorale serves to intensify the hymn meets Hovis flavour.
You have to wait until the apocalyptic hedonism of The Sodom And Gomorrah Show before Horn pulls out his trademark bombast — a sparkly, fun ABBA-esque helter-skelter into depravity and death disco, or what ‘80s kids might call the Full Frankie: timpani, thwacking hi-NRG bass, cascading synth lines, jagged guitar chords and, as was once mandatory on his productions, a thunderous, devilish voiceover that breaks into puny-earthlings-I’ll-destroy-them-all cackling.
Rather more sedate, the plaintive melodrama of Casanova In Hell concerns a perpetually tumescent lothario who can’t get it up for the ladies. Not Neil, then. Chris Lowe perhaps? (“It’s queer that here he can’t cast his spell,” Tennant winks). At opposite ends of the album, I Made My Excuses And Left and Twentieth Century are brilliantly theatrical, but for me, probably the shining star of the set is Luna Park, which, despite its title isn’t a frothy circus stomper but a beautifully morose, atmospheric ballad that bears more than a passing resemblance to the aforementioned Hit And Miss. That the best offering may well be a retread of a decade-old flip side may be a cause for alarm but, on the whole, Fundamental is a solid, sophisticated and strangely sequenced album of decent, listenable if not terribly exciting material.
In other words, despite a lack of obvious singles this is a set of excellently arranged tunes where the use of a single producer gives it a richly developed musical cohesiveness often lacking on PSB albums. And to that end it’s the Pet Shop Boys’ most competent, rounded work since 1993’s Very. Good.
Reviewing 35 years of Pet Shop Boys albums from start to finish is here