It’s been 30 years since the debut of the Pet Shop Boys’ first album “Please” and its worldwide smash “West End Girls.” Since then they’ve unleashed an impressive run of acclaimed albums and have scored dozens of hits around the world.
Their new album “SUPER” reunites the duo with producer Stuart Price, with whom the boys collaborated on their excellent 2013 release “Electric.” “SUPER” is even better than its predecessor. This time the duo looks back and incorporates retro ‘90s dance grooves into their high-energy electro-pop. It’s familiar and nostalgic, but still with a bright modern sheen.
Neil Tennant is in prime form on “SUPER” — his incisive wit is as sharp as ever and his dour vocals have never sounded better. Studio whiz Chris Lowe dives back into those classic ‘90s sounds that pumped through the clubs in a golden era of techno, trance and house and brings them all hurtling into the present. Of course, there is always more than just big melodies, pulsing beats and waves of synths to the Pet Shop Boys’ music — under the glossy pop exterior is an undercurrent of anxiety and vulnerability to many of the tracks.
“Happiness” opens the album with a rhythm reminiscent of something Shep Pettibone might have remixed in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. Between frantic burst of synths, Tennant repeats the lyrical hook that becomes the overall theme of the album: “It’s a long way to happiness/a long way to go/but I’m gonna get there, boy/the only way I know.” The first single is “The Pop Kids,” a song that seems simple at first, but once it sinks in the poignant reflection on the golden years of youth shines through.
“Twenty-Something” looks at the struggles of a millennial trying to keep up with the pressures and expectations of an increasingly cynical world beholden to money, status and technology. The restless anxiety and isolation is stoked to a fever pitch by the jittery rhythm and edgy synths. “Groovy” is an old-school banger designed to be blasted on massive club speakers while the crowd dances itself into a frenzy. Much darker is the tense and shadowy “The Dictator Decides,” one of the more dramatic tracks the duo has recorded in recent years. It’s told from the point of view of a despot who has given in to hopelessness and would love nothing more for his oppressed citizens to rise up in insurrection so he can be freed from his personal torment.
“Pazzo!,” a largely instrumental showcase for Chris Lowe, is another manic dance floor anthem. The hypnotic club vibe continues with “Inner Sanctum,” the first track the duo unveiled as a teaser when the album was announced earlier in the year. Two of the strongest commercial tracks anchor the last part of the album: “Undertow” and “Burn” are both highly melodic dance pop gems that should without question be on the shortlist of potential follow-up singles to “The Pop Kids.”
The final track is “Into Thin Air,” a haunting piece about a desire to disappear and fade away. It’s easy to understand why, given the pressures and tensions that never seem to abate in modern society.
“SUPER” is caught in a vice between the sometimes harsh realities of life and the freedom and release that losing yourself on the dance floor can provide. It’s a terrific collection of immaculately produced songcraft by wily veterans who deliver yet another gem in their already amazing catalog of work.