As a long-time Pet Shop Boys fan, I can still remember the excitement that came with the release of a new album when I was a teenager. No-one else I knew liked them, and the fact that I did was another thing for me to be bullied about.
It didn’t matter. Their electronic landscapes, and lyrics that span from pop to pretension touched every point on the moodscape for me. I could escape into their music; for hope, for commiseration, and for a reflection of my despair.
Their new album, Elysium, is their eleventh. The title refers to the afterlife, and if this collection of songs is Pet Shop Boys’ soundtrack for heaven, it’s perfectly appropriate for their worldview.
Consistent in mood throughout, it sticks mainly to a mellow midtempo of subtle electronica. But unlike its cousin, 1990’s beloved “Behaviour”, it’s infused throughout with hope.
The opening track “Leaving”, reflects on the end of a relationship without acknowledging it as a break forever. It’s not a desperate plea for reconciliation, but filled with simple statements that bonds are eternal:
Our love is dead, but the dead don’t go away
They made us what we are , they’re with us everyday
Our love is dead, but the dead are still alive
In memory and thoughts, and the context they provide
“Invisble” comes up second, and is the bleakest track on the album. Slow, bubbling and introspective, it tells the story of going unseen and ignored in a crowd of people. Ever felt lonely in a crowded room, and felt like a ghost watching the happy people party around you? This is the track for you.
“Winner” was the first single from the album, and hard to like on its own as its release seemed cynically timed with the Olympics. Singer Neil Tennant even mentions in an interview with the album that he worried it was too cheesy when they wrote it, and that lack of conviction does show: they’re mining territory much better covered by Queen in “We Are The Champions” – Freddie Mercury was nothing if not shameless.
Almost lost among the sporting metaphors and calls for celebration, though, is a very important line: “Let’s enjoy it all while it lasts”. So many of us forget to do that.
“Early Stuff” collects together obliviously offensive statements made to Neil Tennant by taxi drivers over the years. It’s amusing, and a phenomenon that many of us who are gay, or have experience with mental illness can relate to. I’ve discovered recently a new phenomenon whereby people who discover I have bipolar begin to recount all the stories they’ve ever heard about “some guy they knew” with bipolar who did everything short of rape a kitten. Why would I want to know this?
“A Face Like That” is a simple, energetic love song about someone captivated by beauty. In the hands of another group, it could have been a syrupy mess accompanied by a video with a supermodel. In theirs, it’s clear that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and it becomes an upbeat, and painfully earnest expression of being knocked off your feet by love at first sight.
“Breathing Space” acknowledges the times in our lives when we need to get away from others and carve out time for ourselves. Sometimes, well-meaning friends will worry and think we need company, when all we need is time alone to recharge:
I stop for some breathing space
I pause in the public place
Take time from all the time it takes
To make up for all the big mistakes
I gotta get out, I gotta get out
We know he’ll be back though, as in the closing lines, he tells us “I know it’s there just in case”.
“Ego Music” is as close as the album gets to angry satire. When punk came along in the late seventies to destroy the egos of overblown rock bands who were, in some cases, quite literally away with the fairies with their twenty-minute epics that no-one could relate to, it changed music.
This track is more cynical: the boat has already sailed, and acknowledges that the pop landscape is populated by performers who use the word Artist all too frequently, giving themselves a capital A without stopping to consider whether they actually deserve it. The verses are narrated, like snippets from unbearable MTV interviews:
“I am my own demographic – what does that say about me?”
Like I said, this is Pet Shop Boys’ idea of the afterlife. Even heaven will be populated by arseholes that you’ll have to sit in the corner and be quietly disgusted by.
The cynicism dissolves into a sixties anthem so simplistic that it seems almost ironic. “Hold On” was inspired by the choir-like, uplifting pop of songs like The Fifth Dimension’s “Up, Up and Away” and comes accompanied by strings and infusions of hope.
The sixties vibe continues with “Give It A Go”, an appeal to someone not keen on jumping into a relationship with typical Pet Shop Boys pragmatism:
“I’m not saying that you can’t find yourself someone better, oh no, but in the meantime why not give me a go?”
“Memory Of The Future” is the saddest pick of the bunch, with a beautiful chorus. “It’s taken me all of my life to find you,” sings the narrator, while painting a picture of a life that he can’t imagine without this person. The past and the future are all laid out like a photo album in front of him, yet the sadness of the minor-key melody makes it clear that all is not perfect:
“You unlock the past,
So many scenes moving fast
At last the right conclusion
Or at least a sweet illusion”
The penultimate track “Everything Means Something” is the flipside of the above, when a relationship has become fractious and communication between partners is underwritten by baggage. You can’t have a simple conversation any longer because every sentence uttered translates its meaning by the time it reaches the ear of the other person.
The sinister and downbeat verses open up into an unexpectedly beautiful and uplifting chorus that act as a splash of cold water to the face, the truth of the situation:
Everything means something
And something has occurred
Everything means something
All other meaning can be blurred
The final track comes with the magnificently overblown title “Requiem In Denim And Leopardskin”. If “Ego Music” was a spiky bitchfest at what pop music has become, this coda is a nostalgic and bittersweet resignation that a musical era has passed into the afterlife.
It starts with a drumbeat that harks back to Pet Shop Boys’ first hit, “West End Girls”, before lifting to a soaring conclusion:
This is our last chance for goodbye
Let the music begin
Shining and soaring like a requiem
In denim and leopardskin
As mere mortals, our experience of music is the closest we will ever get to touching eternity. Recordings last forever, bringing the indescrible fusion of emotion created by words and music from eras past into our minds whenever we need it. Whenever we need our breathing space. And there’s no need to ever say goodbye.