Pet Shop Boys | Fundamental/Further Listening 2005-2007
You don’t get more unlikely pop stars than the Pet Shop Boys. Even when they first arrived on the charts, Neil Tennant was more Basil Fawlty than Simon Le Bon, while Chris Tennant got on with his mannequin impersonation.
Yet, even after 20 years, not much had changed. By 2006 the vocalist’s hair had turned silver and the keyboard player acquired sunglasses and a cap, but ‘Fundamental’ had the duo serving up articulate synth pop as if it were 1986. They even brought in Trevor Horn, who produced some of the ‘80s most overblown hits, to provide the same kitchen sink approach he used on songs like Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Relax’ and the Boys’ own ‘Left To My Own Devices’.
So it’s safe to say that Tennant and Lowe’s ninth album is nothing like its immediate predecessors, the acoustic minimalism of ‘Release’ and an experimental soundtrack to a 1925 Russian film. But that’s a good thing – pop isn’t about growing old gracefully.
So ‘Minimal’ is anything but, featuring everything from Kraftwerk’s robotic vocals and New Order’s bassline to that old kitchen sink. ‘Psychological’, with its incessant beat and keyboard line nicked from some ‘70s German electro song, is icy, clinical, and a lot of fun. And ‘The Sodom And Gomorrah Show’ sounds just as its title suggests – glitzy Broadway number meets tacky TV gameshow theme tune – but, like all their best songs, finds the Boys with tongues planted firmly in proverbial cheeks.
It’s not all fun and games, though – this is their most political album since ‘Actually’ bashed Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Despite sounding incredibly silly (just as every good pop song should), ‘I’m With Stupid’ is about Tony Blair’s relationship with George W. Bush. Such innocent times. And the defiant march of ‘Integral’ (“One world, One reason, Unchanging, One season”) tackles the then controversial issue of identity cards – while being completely danceable.
Lofty subjects like the still topical politics of fear frequently step aside for more intimate themes – like love. ‘Casanova In Hell’ sounds suitably angelic while ‘I Made My Excuses’ – about a relationship ended by affair – is simply drenched in tragedy.
Who’d have guessed that with Horn all over them, Tennant and Lowe could pull off such intimacy. It’s only ‘Numb’, “the big ballad” by the once-in-vogue Diane ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’ Warren, that chokes on the schmaltz – the Pet Shop Boys’ intelligence replaced by what sounds like the same orchestra that stole Aeromsith’s soul all those years ago.
But thankfully the violins and cellos and stuff don’t stick around for long, leaving the unlikely stars to get on with what they do best – making glorious pop for the feet and the head.