Pet Shop Boys: Release (Sanctuary)

Suddenly, as everyone else catches up and gets shiny, the Pet Shop Boys lay waste to their ethos.

Release is the eighth studio album from the Pet Shop Boys, one of the most misunderstood, underrated, and unacknowledged pop bands of the last two decades. Since their inception, they have made some of the most melodic, ironic, and lush electropop ever. Neil Tennant’s vocal delivery, a mix between talking and soft singing, is an ideal portrait for the evolving framework of sounds from architect-cum-popster Chris Lowe.

Their latest record is sheer deviation. Gone are the lads of strange clothes and dour demeanor who make records with irony and sweeping choral thumpy bits. In their stead is a duo of simplicity, experimentation, and adulthood. Undoubtedly, there appears little terrain left to cover for the Pet Shop Boys. Nonetheless, they try and succeed here.

The ten songs on Release are much more evocative, much less ironic and gloomy, and generally softer. The disco shuffling and high hats have given way to more amicable, user-friendly—dare I say rock sound. It’s as though the Pet Shop Boys have tracked themselves down and remolded themselves as dignified musical thespians. Succinctly put, they have created a lavishly complete album. It’s as if they shrugged their shoulders and unburdened themselves of ever high-energy fiber in their being. Instead, they have regrouped their musical consciousness and melded it with the guitar genius of Johnny Marr.

It has been 12 years since the ex-Smith Marr worked with the Pet Shop Boys on the much-overlooked album, Behaviour. However, Release has such cohesiveness that it sounds like they have always been a trio. Marr’s guitar work has added an amazing new dimension to their music, beginning with the first single, “Home and Dry,” a well-crafted, sly track with an almost irritatingly catchy melody. It is terrifying at first (the opening sounds like a lost Police track), but then all is well when the keyboards kick in, resulting in a great pop tune.

“I Get Along” is a celebration of independence. It features the common PSB theme of being on your own but with no irony at all. It starts off with a very nice sounding piano riff and builds into something pleasant and crafted. The much more subdued “Birthday Boy” sounds like Tennant is channeling Ian Broudie. It features Marr with a wonderful Smiths-ish intro.

“London,” a song about immigrants, hiding in the West and being dodgy in a new place, features Tennant again cross-referencing two of his passions, London and Eastern Europe. This time, though, he is armed with some really tender guitar work interlaced with a few pangs of sweeping electronics. “E-mail” is an unabashedly open telecommunication love song. Much like “Home and Dry,” it is delicate and distant. Although it has some funky hip-hop elements, it is the sappiest tune in this collection.

By far the closest remnant of the Pet Shop Boys’ high-energy past is the controlled “The Samurai in Autumn.” It’s as if they are convulsing and trying to spew out little bursts of the heavy synthesized sounds that made them famous. By carefully turning these outburts into hiccups, PSB have made a wonderful song. Chris Lowe’s swirling funnel of sound really gels with Neil Tennant’s minimalist vocals. While it doesn’t sound overly Japanese, it could be about the Meiji Restoration or simply being alive and outdated; its simple phrasing, “It’s not as easy as it was or as difficult as it could be” is brilliant.

The collaboration with Johnny Marr comes full circle on “Love Is a Catastrophe,” which features the duo in at its loneliest, self-loathing, self-defeating best. This paean to broken-hearted miserabilism is great, its duality astounding. It sounds like a Smiths song, combined with Actually-era PSB sadness. Although it is somewhat asphyxiating, it still weathers the storm and lends a nice counterbalance to the album. This is proof that there are some old Pet sounds lying under the surface and percolating. It is easily the evil twin of “Love Comes Quickly.”“Here” may well be the standout track. It combines all the usual trademarks of their sound: a crescendo of moving beats, lots of percussion, and literate lyrics with a hook. Like the song says, “We all make a mess of our lives from time to time”; it’s just that the Pet Shop Boys write about this process better than anyone else.

The last two songs end the album awkwardly, but, somehow, it all works. Eminem is called out in all but name on the funky “The Night I Fell in Love,” a rather long narrative about hip-hop culture, homophobia, and fame. The well-structured song features a nice, mellow hip-hop groove, backed by nice harmonies and some nice acoustic accompaniment. Tennant paints a complete picture, telling a story about fame, idolization, and getting backstage. At one point, Tennant coyly chides, “Your name isn’t Stan, is it?” It is hard to imagine two white English Northerners making funky sounds like this. It is a bit awkward at first, but eventually it gets under your skin. “You Choose” polishes off the whole affair. It has some nice horn sounds on it, and the vocals are again quiet and brooding. This gives the song a quiet, pastoral English countryside texture, lending a sublimely pleasant nonending to Release.

The Pet Shop Boys remain relevant because they are contemporary. The success they have achieved has been reached by their artistic rigidity. The Pet Shop Boys are tinkerers, deliberately crafting everything they do. They believe in complete artist involvement; their every track, mix, and photo is deliberate and innovative. They create albums as complete packages. Besides the music, artwork, sleeves, liner notes, and videos are all synthesized, stylized, and assembled with the attention of being a whole piece. This approach has kept them ahead of the game for years. Suddenly, as everyone else catches up and gets shiny, the Pet Shop Boys lay waste to their ethos. Release is a break from the norm. In stylistically punk rock fashion, they have abandoned their own stereotype. They have jettisoned their image as pop disco icons, replacing themselves as mature, thoughtful, and relevant musicians.

Release is both a letting go and a new beginning. The record marks an interesting maturation for the Pet Shop Boys. But it is a fresh, invigorating change worth noticing.

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