Pet Shop Boys
Fresh off Daft Punk’s second coming, synthpop legends Pet Shop Boys have rejoined the EDM revolution with their most dancefloor ready collection of new material since Introspective (1988!), featuring their strongest material since Very (1993!). After a decade of dicking around with world music, soundtracks, and ambient, hearing new PSB in the club is reason enough to celebrate, but Electric isn’t just that return to form fans have been waiting for; it feels like a new start entirely.
Part of the credit for that triumph goes to avowed Boys disciple and remix king Stuart Price, who swapped tracks with the duo and in the process sculpted Chris Lowe’s late ’80s keyboard textures into modern shapes, wisely keeping the words brief and filtering lead singer Neil Tennant’s voice enough to give it the authenticity of distance. The result is a pop album that hides behind the freeform tension-and-release of a modern DJ, with just enough Reagan-era primitivism in the sounds to remind you of their massive cred. “Inside a Dream” is almost funky (for Eighties values of funky), while “Thursday” recalls the heyday of Latin Freestyle, yet the pulse of the near-instrumentals “Fluorescent” and “Shouting in the Evening” are new as tomorrow.
Better still, Tennant sounds emotionally and not just musically invested in this rebirth; synthpop’s own weary, witty Oscar Wilde, his R&B-flavored falsettos and deadpan singspeak always hit hardest when he’s bitchiest, and his new emotional center — borne out entirely in the title of the third track, “Love is a Bourgeois Construct” — is a fascinating one. Neil develops that theme throughout most of Electric, refusing to be owned and defined by his romantic relationships, then pivots in the last third to join his fans on the dance floor, an embittered yet liberated victim reveling in still being able to live in the moment. “Expressing passion / explaining pain / aspirations for a better life are ordained,” he sings, recommitting to his muse. Then the summation, at once snide, self depreciating, and hopeful: “I like the singer / He’s lonely and strange / Every track has a vocal / And that makes a change.”
Impact: 84. The beats bang so hard fans are referring to this as “Chris’ album.”
Innovation: 85. In this new lyrical context, the cover of Springsteen’s “The Last to Die” sounds like it was written about an emotional battleground.
Integrity: 87. The ironic, faux-regal majesty of “Construct” is the essence of what makes PSB great.
Where Does This Door Go?
Mayer Hawthorne (not his real name, though it fits) has spent two albums now trafficking in a neo-neo-soul so neo no one can agree what to call it. Essentially creating indie pop from authentic ’60s and ’70s R&B, this nebulous genre — put 50 bucks on “hipster soul” — is unique in that its the first R&B in at least a generation to largely ignore hip-hop. It’s not for nothing that the white Mayer is a product of the Stones Throw label.
The news with his fourth release, Where Does This Door Go, is twofold: Hawthorne is courting the hip-hop community harder than he used to, but he’s also forgoing his earlier self-produced Motown and Stax obsessions for straight-up yacht rock. You have to give Mayer credit for even realizing a crossroads existed between Steely Dan, Justin Timberlake, late-period Kool and the Gang and early-period Black Eyed Peas, much less for deciding to plant his flag there.
Realizing he needed assistance to make that kind of synthesis fly, the singer songwriter hired a hipsoul dream team — Pharrell Williams, Jack Splash, and Pop & Oak handling the black R&B side of the equation, and Greg Wells and Kid Harpoon handling the white pop side. The blue-eyed soul assortment of ear candy they’ve assisted him in crafting is not only sweet and shiny but seamless, neatly erasing the boundaries between his retro-soul worship and his modern martini-bar attitude. (Pharrell in particular brings out the Aja album inside every suburban soul lover.) And while the club nods are more pronounced, they’re still pretty tame — Kendrick Lamar is a much riskier bet than last album’s Snoop Dogg, but he assimilates with no disruption. When a sample declares the crew is “about to slow it down and make it funky,” it’s very relative indeed.
The reason Door is a killer collection of white-soul moves and not the R&B album of the year, however, has to do with Mayer’s persona, a much slicker construct than the music; though he plays up his naughty boy image, his platitudes about love (“I shoulda told you you’re the only one for me / How could I ever be so blind?”) and sex (“I’m programmable / I can go all night”) are pretty faded. Even the sentiments in “Reach Out Richard,” a touching tribute to his father’s attempts to reign in his boy, are pretty vague. Hawthorne’s singing better than ever, but this only compounds the problem — thanks in part to artists like Timberlake, merely passing as authentic isn’t enough. Having soul doesn’t necessarily equate to having a soul. Or maybe his m.o. is as simple as “Her Favorite Song”: “When she gets home / she puts her headphones on / she plays her favorite song / and fades away.”
Innovation: 72. Not as hard as it tries to be, but then again, it doesn’t try very hard.
Integrity: 70. Guilty Pleasure of the Year.