Anyone who knows Pet Shop Boys merely by its droll and flamboyant live spectacle is only getting a partial glimpse of the duo’s genius. Since the mid ’80s, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have taken great pains to create records which are equal parts sophisticated, sentimental and pointed. Elysium, the group’s first proper studio album since 2009′s Yes, is no different: The record contains acerbic social critique (“In the sea of negativity/ I’m statue of liberty,” is how “Ego Music” skewers the false humility of modern pop stars), elegant wordplay (“I’m invisible/ It’s queer/ How gradually/ I’ve become/ Invisible”) and gushing romantic sentiments (the settle-for-me exhortation of “Give It A Go,” the longing-come-true “Memory Of The Future”).
Produced by long-time Kanye West collaborator Andrew Dawson (who also engineered fun.’s Some Nights and Beyonce’s 4), Elysium is more retro-sounding and subdued than the group’s recent efforts. Watery electropop, percolating slow jams and nuanced effects – stacked vocals, moody keyboard droning, the occasional ’80s-caliber voice or synth flourish – coexist with moments of unabashed schmaltz (the string-swept “Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin,” piano-laden ’60s-pop homage “Give It A Go”) and even mournful acoustic guitar (“Breathing Space”). Even the Pet Shop Boys-grade dancefloor classics – such as the alarming disco surge “Face Like That” or the frazzled synthpop spurt “Ego Music” – aren’t quite as peppy.
What makes Elysium so affecting, however, is its reflective tone. “Invisible” laments the painful reality of aging out of youthful frivolity, while “Leaving” discusses lessons learned from – and finding hope in – a failed relationship. And then there’s the sublime “Your Early Stuff,” which lambastes clueless music fans who don’t take veteran musicians seriously. Lyrics such as “I still quite like some of your early stuff/ It’s bad in a good way, if you know what I mean” gradually segue into the backhanded punchline, “Anyway, what’s your name?” It’s vintage Pet Shop Boys wit you can take as both a sly nod to the band’s detractors – and as a defiant statement of relevance.