Rock column, Mail on Sunday, May 21 2006
Parlophone, out tomorrow
Hammersmith Apollo, London
The Pet Shops Boysí new album culminates in a song about identity, which is just as it should be. Few acts in pop history have had a clearer sense of self than Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. You can spot their records just by the cover design, which are elegantly minimal, like a four-inch loft.
You can also spot them by their titles, which are long and conversational for single songs (classic example: You Only Tell Me You Love Me When Youíre Drunk) or short and to the point for albums Ė Please, Actually, Very and Introspective have now been joined by Fundamental. And of course you can spot them by their sound: pensive, pumping electro pop, featuring fat synths and a thin but distinctive voice.
Better at making singles than albums, they have nonetheless proved the most durable of duos. Itís now 21 years since they broke through with West End Girls. Pop eras and prime ministers have come and gone, but the Pet Shop Boys go on and on.
They have had a sideline in social comment ever since Thatcherism, with songs like Opportunities (Letís Make Lots Of Money), and this is the mode that dominates Fundamental, produced by Mr Eighties himself, Trevor Horn. With Thatcher, the Boys were aghast; with Tony Blair, they are disappointed, because Tennant was a New Labour donor who went to the victory party on election night in 1997, when things could only get better.
Disappointment is a very Pet Shop Boys emotion, so the protest songs feel natural. The storming finale, Integral, lampoons the case for identity cards and broadens into an attack on authoritarianism. Twentieth Century is the most thoughtful of Iraq war songs, a reflection on the mess from the point of view of one who supported the invasion.
Indefinite Leave To Remain, a title no other band in the world could have dreamt up, can be read either as a plea from an asylum seeker or as a proposal of civil partnership. The political and the personal are entwined, which stops the songs being shrill or dry.
The one broadside that doesnít work is the current single, Iím With Stupid. The lyrics are strong Ė skewering Blairís relationship with George Bush by treating it as a sad infatuation Ė but the chorus is fatally weak. As the verses build, youíre expecting a chant, and all you get is a high-pitched mutter.
A couple of other tracks misfire. Numb, written by the Los Angeles power-ballad manufaturer Diane Warren, is just awful, a brain-dead Robbie Williams album track which shows that even the Pet Shop Boys can lose their identity. A song of their own called Minimal is not much better: the rhymes are ostentatious (criminal, subliminal) and the synths are secondhand, leaving you feeling that itís time for a five-year ban on homages to Kraftwerk.
When this album is good, though, it is outstanding. Two songs rise above politics to comment on the state of our minds: Luna Park is a sweeping ballad about dumb consumerism (Ďon the shooting range/ the plastic prizes never changeí), while The Sodom & Gomorrah Show is a pulsating cornucopia of sound that uses every trick in Trevor Hornís book to tackle celebrity culture. Itís like watching an episode of Grumpy Old Men that isnít depressing.
The slow songs have a touching dignity. Indefinite Leave To Remain, stagey but likeable, has a gorgeous brass part. I Made My Excuses And Left, about being cuckolded, is an exquisite expression of embarrassment which takes Tennant into Alan Bennett territory. Almost as a bonus, thereís a bodice-ripping number, Casanova In Hell, which contains possibly the sauciest-ever use of a cello. Next time the Pet Shop Boys do one of their excellent compilations, half these songs will demand a place.
Radiohead are on tour, not to promote an album Ė they donít even have a record deal at the moment Ė but to present works in progress. This is not a recipe for a relaxed night out. Radiohead are the most experimental of todayís megabands and it can be taxing listening to their last two albums, never mind something new.
In fact it worked out well. There were just enough old favourites to keep the fansí fervour bubbling, the five band members played dozens of instruments with their usual intense precision, the video relay (on a screen broken into ten fragments) was beguilingly strange, and the new songs turned out to have a radical new component: a sense of fun.
Thom Yorke may still look as if he cuts his own hair in the dark, but his songwriting has moved on from plangent atonalism to something looser and sunnier. Two of the new tracks skip along to 1950s beats. Are you ready for 21st-century art-school rockabilly?