Pet Shop Boys Synthesize Time And Style
Even by the outré 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 it broke out with the worldwide smash “West End Girls,” the group might be more singular now than it was back then: It’s the exceedingly rare veteran act that’s gone about its business — and held onto much of its fanbase — 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,” he said recently. “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 chuckled. “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 U.K. pop acts. In 2012, it 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 said with a laugh.
In fact, the group’s recent material — much of which it’s set to perform Saturday night at the Shrine Auditorium — reflects what Price called the Pet Shop Boys’ “completely uncompromising” nature.
Though “Electric” pounds with the high-energy club beats now ubiquitous on Top 40 radio, the album examines matters of art and politics and celebrity with characteristic depth and humor, 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,” said Price, who described Tennant, 59, as “a real lyric Nazi” and said Lowe, 54, “is equally brilliant at understanding high culture and trash culture.”
Arriving at the studio for work, the producer added, “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 — even the score they composed for a 2011 ballet— 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,” said Tennant, sitting with Lowe this week in a conference room at Santa Monica’s KCRW-FM (89.9). The duo had just performed on the radio station’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” program and was due to depart soon for a show in Las Vegas. “It’s all a giant work of art that keeps expanding.”
But that doesn’t mean the group’s music continues to occupy the same space in an outside universe that’s grown only raunchier.
A willfully slow-moving meditation on aging that Tennant and Lowe recorded in Los Angeles, “Elysium” drew largely lukewarm reviews last year (though that didn’t prevent them from doing the beautiful “Invisible” on KCRW). Even at home in Britain, the album peaked at No. 9 — considerably lower than “Yes” or “Fundamental” in 2006.
“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 — one watchword during the album’s creation was “banging” — but insists he’s skeptical 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 said. “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.” He laughed. “Besides, any minute now people are going to hate EDM.”
But they probably won’t hate the Pet Shop Boys.
Asked about the band’s profile on U.K. radio at the moment, Tennant scoffed and said the BBC resists playing anything by artists over the age of 27. He also admitted that titles like “Love Is a Bourgeois Construct” aren’t helping in an era when “the pop song, broadly speaking, has one subject: the singer.”
Still, he added, whatever the band doesn’t get from radio it more than makes up for on the road, where the band plays to what Tennant exactingly described 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 said, 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 turned to Lowe. “It’s really quite touching, isn’t it?”