On Super, the Pet Shop Boys’ thirteenth album proper, the British pop pair re-team with dance producer Stuart Price for the second in a projected triptych, following 2013’s reinvigorated Electric. This middle panel loosens and elaborates Electric’s approach: eschewing the smart build of those lengthy beat extravaganzas in favour of more varied, song-based cuts, through there’s nothing that comes close to the lyrical genius that is Love Is A Bourgeois Construct.
Stuart Price specialises in refurbishing disco, modernising mash-ups and paying post-modern tribute to the past. That Super comes 30 years and a week after the duo’s debut, Please is a timely reminder of how far Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have come. Listening to it now, you are immediately struck by its slightly sleazy subject matter wrapped in a jagged, jarring energy that now seems incredibly assured for an opening statement, the first of several albums where they deigned to produce collections of strong and accessible songs “where every track could be a single.”
Come 2016 and that imperial concept has been well and truly abandoned, perhaps understandably. PSB have said that the current mechanisms of the music industry have allowed them to experiment more and that Super, partly at least, is the obvious outcome. Yet they were never shy of experimenting on their non-album material, which gained them the reputation as one of the greatest outputters of classic B-sides this side of Roxy Music.
So whether the muddying of the waters is an acknowledgement that in their fourth decade of making music the pop hooks don’t bounce off the production line like they used to, or simply an admission that they’ve been forcibly freed from the desire of hit singles is a matter of conjecture. Though it is a full decade since the Boys last saw one of their singles enjoy a Top 10 placing with 2006’s Bush-Blair satire I’m With Stupid.
Thankfully the warmongers have long gone, but Tennant and Lowe have persisted and continued to ply their trade with a breadth of vision and panoply of sounds that their return to club music feels calmly liberated, without any obvious grasping for the commercial success of old. Indeed, one might surmise they’ve swapped the pop hits for The Pop Kids, the too on-the-nose lead track here. Tennant sings of the university days of yore when clubbing and banging five nights a week was the norm. The familiar cowbell break gives an average track a lift but the verses feel forced though. And if hardly erudite lyrics such as “They called us the pop kids because we loved the pop hits,” induce the odd groan, the album does get better. A bit.
There’s the ageing autocrat pondering abdication on The Dictator Decides, a moody, militaristic mid-tempo number where Neil sings about sounding “quite demented” over a jackbooted martian-beat. Into Thin Air is bitingly pretty, and with its skewed reggaetón rhythm, Twenty-something is an odd one on first listen, but bears repeated listening. Lyrically it’s probably the best of the bunch as it references smartphones, startups, and “trending ideas” in a “time of greed.”
Burn, Groovy and Undertow tread the line between cheese and pop banger, a regular PSB hallmark. Even attempts at well established PSB tics and tricks fail to distract from the throwaway feel of the songs. Twenty years ago the trio may have made perfunctory B-sides. Though Pazzo!, an unnecessary instrumental, would have most definitely remained on the cutting room floor. And probably taken the camp country of Happiness with it.
You can sense the duo’s editorial hand slackening a little — strangely, Super is actually shorter than Electric, yet it runs three songs longer, with all but one track are under four minutes. Say it To Me is unmemorable except for the alarming way it just gives up in its last minute, a tacit admission no one had any idea how to end it. It just doesn’t flow at all well, a bit like Super in fact. The best Pet Shop Boys albums were brilliant at building to a stunning denouement, Super merely flails around ebbing and flowing and not quite living up to its title. Still, there are a few moments worthy of repeated listenings.
This review was originally written for GuySpy in 2016