Pet Shop Boys staying current with 'Electric'
The Pet Shop Boys keep pace with the fast-moving music scene by working with elite collaborators
Even by the outre standards of the 1980s - when music was full of smooth criminals and material girls - the Pet Shop Boys stood out. Two fashion-conscious English guys with the crisp enunciation of schoolteachers, the pioneering duo made electronic synth-pop that looked to the future just as it drew on the old-fashioned storytelling of Noel Coward and P.G. Wodehouse.
But nearly 30 years after they broke out with the worldwide smash West End Girls, the group might be more singular now than they were back then: they are the exceedingly rare veteran act that have gone about their business - and held onto much of their fan base - without coming across as desperate or uninspired.
Neil Tennant, the band's singer, has an idea why. "What the Pet Shop Boys have never done - except maybe accidentally in the mid '80s - is sell sex. When you sell sex you get much bigger sales and controversy, and everybody knows what you're about, because ultimately the culture's about sex. And shopping. And violence." He chuckles. "We've done shopping and violence. But when you sell sex and you get older, that's when people will say the desperation sets in."
It's a persuasive idea, especially given the degree to which Tennant and keyboardist Chris Lowe have appeared determined in recent years to maintain their place in a fast-moving music scene.
For 2009's Yes, the group allied with Xenomania, the British songwriting and production team behind a number of young British pop acts. Last year they hired Andrew Dawson to produce Elysium based solely on the fact that Dawson had collaborated with Kanye West. And to oversee this year's Electric, the Pet Shop Boys recruited Stuart Price, known for his work under the name Jacques Lu Cont, and on records by Madonna and The Killers.
"Maybe the desperation is just lingering beneath the surface," Lowe says with a laugh.
In fact, the group's recent material reflects what Price called the Pet Shop Boys' "completely uncompromising" nature.
Although Electric pounds with the high-energy club beats now ubiquitous on Top 40 radio, the album examines matters of art, politics and celebrity with characteristic depth and humour, as in the wry Fluorescent ("I can't deny you've made your mark," Tennant sings, "with the helicopters and the occasional oligarch") and Love is a Bourgeois Construct, which lives up handily to its title.
There's even a stirring electro-disco rendition of Bruce Springsteen's The Last to Die that finds an unexpected intimacy in the Boss' anti-war grandstanding.
"Neil and Chris are so focused on their quality threshold, which is why they haven't lost it," says Price, who describes Tennant, 59, as "a real lyric Nazi" and says Lowe, 54, "is equally brilliant at understanding high culture and trash culture".
Arriving at the studio for work, the producer adds, "they'd be as present as two 17-year-olds walking in to do their first song."
If the Pet Shop Boys still summon some of that early-days energy, perhaps it's because they view their new music as part of the same project as West End Girls, which kicked off a string of indelible hit singles that also includes It's a Sin, Suburbia, What Have I Done to Deserve This? and the band's cover of Go West by the Village People.
"We set out to create our own universe that we could invite people into," says Tennant. "It's all a giant work of art that keeps expanding."
But that doesn't mean their music continues to occupy the same space in an outside universe that's grown only raunchier.
Elysium, a willfully slow-moving meditation on ageing that Tennant and Lowe recorded in Los Angeles, drew largely lukewarm reviews last year. Electric, which came out in July, has been received more enthusiastically, perhaps in part because it taps into the hard-driving sound of current electronic dance music, known as EDM. Tennant acknowledges the overlap but insists he's sceptical about its value.
"Often when we've come to America, people go, 'This is a great time for you guys!' And we go, 'Oh, great'," he says. "We just do what we do, and sometimes something comes along, like EDM, and it seems we're in the groove. Other times we're working totally against it."
Asked about the band's profile on British radio at the moment, Tennant says the BBC resists playing anything by artists over the age of 27. But he admits that titles such as Love is a Bourgeois Construct aren't helping in an era when "the pop song, broadly speaking, has one subject: the singer".
Still, he says, whatever the band don't get from radio it more than makes up for on the road, where they play to what Tennant describes as "professional couples" and "people who like what they perceive as intelligence in the music".
"Also, we get a lot of gay guys who've grown up with the Pet Shop Boys - who came out with West End Girls or Being Boring," he says, referring to another of the band's signature tunes.
"And now they've been with their partner for 20 years, or they've got married. There's a whole narrative there that we're locked into." He turns to Lowe. "It's really quite touching, isn't it?"
Los Angeles Times