Like two Planet Pop missionaries sent to cheer us up in the stormy economic weather, the Pet Shop Boys are everywhere in 2009.
They reminded the Brit Awards audience about their dazzling back catalogue, and since then you will have seen them on TV’s comfy sofa circuit, heard them bantering with Wossy and co on the radio, and watched them tweeting on Twitter. This isn’t conventional behaviour for two middle-aged men, but as Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have got older, age has not wearied them, nor have the years condemned.
Instead, the Pet Shop Boys have cemented their position as pop’s very own Gilbert and George – two straight-faced, well-dressed gentlemen who continue to make wry, tender artistic comments on the human condition. They have stayed strangely ageless in the process, Tennant’s high, boyish voice and Lowe’s bright, gleaming synthesisers still filling their music with youthful rapture.
And so, they were given the Outstanding Contribution to Music Award at the Brits back in February, and now their tenth studio album, Yes, arrives on a wave of positivity. Their relevance was bolstered at the ceremony when they were joined on stage by Brandon Flowers of the Killers and Lady Gaga, both unit-shifting young artists whose music panders heavily to Eighties sounds.
From its primary-coloured cover art to the glossy songs inside it, Yes reminds us visually and musically of how bold that time was. It is produced by Brian Higgins’s production house, Xenomania, the masters-at-work behind the 21st century’s biggest pop phenomenon, Girls Aloud. The way in which Higgins’s team has taken the Pet Shop Boys back to their roots shows how obsessed they are with chart potential, and just how much modern music is indebted to the Eighties, a decade that brought us not only the Pets, but Stock, Aitken and Waterman, too.
Xenomania has co-written three tracks on this album, all of which look back to that era. The album’s lead single, “Love etc”, has lyrics that could have swaggered out of a Bret Easton Ellis novel (“Don’t have to have your daddy paying the bills . . . Don’t have to be beautiful, but it helps”). Then there is “More Than a Dream”, an aural testament to the power of synthesised strings, while the last is the tellingly titled “The Way It Used to Be”, with its minor-key reveries on the power of the past (“We knew our lives had just begun/We could do anything/We’re fearless when we’re young”).
All this could suggest that Xenomania, as well as the Pet Shop Boys, are needlessly stuck in the past. Lyrics about the Cold War and The Man From UNCLE don’t harm that view. But nostalgia, fantasy and excess have always fuelled great pop, and songs stick in the mind because of their grand gestures. The euphoric melodies and widescreen dynamics on Yes remind us that the Pet Shop Boys understand how this works, but their songs come bearing gifts that lie far below the shiny surface.
It takes several listens for Yes to shore up its treasures. The canny steal of a figure from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite at the start of “All Over the World” unleashes its power slowly, showing how pomp and ceremony can build in effect. The sly irony of “Did You See Me Coming?” sounds one-dimensional until you notice the sweeter lyrics hiding in its verses (“I saw you standing there and I knew/I’d love/to be loved by you”). Vocal interjections from the often-mute Lowe also seem cumbersome at first, and grow in charm only when you notice their humour. Nowhere does this happen better than in “Building a Wall”, when Lowe barks, “Who do you think you are, Captain Britain?” after Tennant’s rosy reveries about a free country where there are wasps in the tea.
The Pet Shop Boys are at their best when they are unflinchingly honest and look at real-life emotions with candour and clarity. Yes is full of such sentiments. As they do this to glorious beats and heavenly washes of sound, they remind us how pop music can act as a wonderful balm.
Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe’s continuing career also suggests that they need us now as much as we need them.