Monday, June 12, 2006

Fundamentally PSB

Even before hearing a note from the Pet Shop Boys’ latest release, Fundamental, I read several glowing reviews about the album. Generally the verdict is similar: “a smashing return to form by the Pet Shop Boys” is the almost unanimous assessment.

Glowing reviews tend to elicit two reactions from me. Either I end up liking the reviewed because of preconditioning, or I run screaming in the opposite direction. I must admit while listening to the album I was vacillating between the two the whole time.

Most critics refer to the Boys’ return to form as their return to electronic synthpop versus their previous Release, which had guitars all over the place; that album was generally panned by many. But part of me suspects that “return to form” is also just a subtle backhanded way for the critics to say, the Boys are repeating themselves. A mid-album musical breaker like God Willing? Been there with The Samurai in Autumn from their previous album. Spelling out the title in the chorus with “M-I-N-I-M-A-L, we are minimal”? Done that with “We’re S-H-O-P-P-I-N-G, we’re shopping” in their very first album.

But while the Boys do repeat themselves, they’re smart enough to rise above the sound of rehash. They still write some of the smartest and sharpest lyrics around (although one song, Numb is written by Diane Warren). The critics are also praising the Boys for being more overtly political in this album, although their very British concerns will be lost to those who don’t tune in regularly to the BBC.

Plus they were astute enough to get Trevor Horn to co-produce the album with them. Having him onboard is like getting a third ear—everything sounds familiar yet one can hear a newness pulsing just below the surface.

The songs certainly evoke the sounds of electronic past. The album starts strongly with Psychological, whose instrumentation recalls latter-day Depeche Mode. Towards the end of Minimal the guitars come in above the electronic beat ala-New Order. Plus the Boys evoke their own sound as well. The Sodom and Gomorrah Show opens with a dramatic bombast that’s so PSB; plus there’s the Paninaro-like opening of “Sun! Sex! Sin! Divine intervention! Death! And destruction!” Integral is a strong album ender in the vein of Go West or Saturday Night Forever. Meanwhile I Made My Excuse And Left is a successfully mournful number that recalls the Boys’ more morose musical musings. And even the song Indefinite Leave To Remain still has guitars strumming in the background.

While far from perfect, Fundamental is a strong contribution to the Boys’ oeuvre. The Boys smartly dip into their synthpop strengths while letting Horn tweak their sound. The result is a subtly surprising album that at times sounds frisky and fresh while remaining fundamentally PSB.

I've been stunned by the over-the-top reviews of this disc, particularly those calling it the best since Very. I like the album, but I'm not yet ready to say it's better than anything since Very.
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