Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, better known as British pop duo Pet Shop Boys, have been recording together in one form or another since a chance meeting in an electronics store in their native England back in 1981. It wasn’t until their eventual signing with Parlaphone Records in 1985, and the re-release of their breakthrough (and now signature) single, “West End Girls,” that the band first saw major success, selling 1.5 million copies worldwide.
Often viewed as a one-hit wonder here in the states, Pet Shop Boys are anything but. With a rampant fan base the world over rooted deeply in, but certainly not limited to, the gay community, and over 38 Top-40 singles in the UK, Pet Shop Boys have enjoyed fairly constant success (the usual peaks and valleys apply) throughout their always ambitious 25-year career.
Chris Lowe’s synth-driven pop compositions (ranging in everything from traditional classical, early New Wave and European disco, and contemporary House, Techno, and Electro) are the unlikely, perfect companion to Tennant’s undeniably British wit and charm, his unique singing style, and his often poetic flair for the English language. They've earned themselves a spot at the top among fellow artists of the same cut including Depeche Mode, New Order, O.M.D., and Erasure.
Fundamental is the their 9th studio album (16th, if you count various remix, hits, and b-side compilations), continuing in a long tradition of to-the-point, one-word (Please, Actually, Behavior, Very) album titles. This time around they have enlisted the help of ‘80s producer extraordinaire, Trevor Horn, who the duo last worked with on the song “Left to My Own Device” from 1988’s Introspective, their compilation of 12” dance singles.
A founding member of The Buggles, Horn is responsible for the ‘80s smash and MTV catalyst, “Video Killed the Radio Star,” as well as being a founding member of Art of Noise. He also enjoyed a stint, albeit brief, as the lead singer for the band Yes on 1980’s Drama. Horn has since gone on to produce the likes of Tom Jones, Tina Turner, LeAnn Rimes, and Belle and Sebastian, to name a few, but is most known for his work with Frankie Goes to Hollywood in the ‘80s, and his on-again, off-again relationship with Seal throughout the 1990s.
With Fundamental, the marriage of Horn’s trademark orchestrals to Lowe’s usual disco delights is the perfect blend of producer-artist commerce, with either side taking center stage. It doesn’t sound overtly Trevor Horn, yet there is something setting it apart from the last few Pet Shop Boys releases, something ultimately different, yet very familiar. It runs the usual Pet Shop Boys gamut from traditional four-on-the-floor club tracks to sweeping, lovelorn ballads to biting (this time political) anthems.
“Psychological”, the album’s opening track, is a sweet little electro ditty, dark in its lyrical content and, in a word, paranoid. Not your usual Pet Shop fare, and certainly not indicative of the rest of the album, but a stellar opener nonetheless. The next track, however, “The Sodom and Gomorrah Show”, is a trademark PSB anthem about sense of belonging with the usual strings and lush synth chords you’ve come to expect, and a Xanadu feel throughout that would have any good E.L.O. fan questioning his whereabouts. From there, the album unfolds much like a typical Pet Shop Boys release.
Overall, I would say it is better than recent efforts, Nightlife and Release, with one exception – the singles. “I’m With Stupid”, the album’s first major single, is a riff on Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair’s relationship with George W. Bush. While it is certainly the most Trevor Horn of all the tracks (second only to the 1:30 “God Willing”), it relies too heavily on its political content. It falls short as a single, certainly radio-friendly, but mediocre at best.
Even more lackluster and predictable is the album’s second single, “Minimal.” Its reliance on an all-to-used (and, unfortunately, now cliché) vocoded chorus spelling out the word M-I-N-I-M-A-L and bad Ibiza-style synth line throughout are more than enough to overshadow what few good elements lie underneath. The right remix(er), however, could make all the difference. Compared to “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk” from Nightlife or “Home and Dry” from Release, the singles from Fundamental, so far, leave something to be desired.
Having said that, there are plenty of wonderful “deep” cuts on this album to keep the fans coming back for more. The painfully applicable “I Made My Excuses and Left” is a brilliant account of running into one’s ex, while Chris’s bounce and Neil’s brains on “Twentieth Century” are more than enough to make up for a couple of lacking singles.
Pet Shop Boys are currently on tour in Europe and the UK with a North American leg kicking off in Montreal on October 10th. They hit the states on October 13th in Boston, continuing through November, finally ending in Los Angeles, before moving on to Mexico. On Friday, October 27th they will be at the Chicago Theatre in Chicago, and God willing, so will I.
Written by Tío Esqueleto