A new record by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe is cause for excitement and celebration in itself, but when legendary pop producer Trevor Horn is on board – for the first time since 1988 – too, seventh heaven surely beckons. But Pet Shop Boys‘ Fundamental is absolutely not a throwback. Rather, this is a record that could only have been made now, and has 2006 stamped all over it.
The 12 tracks that make up Fundamental were heralded by the witty lead single I’m With Stupid, lyrically an examination of the relationship between George Bush and Tony Blair but musically the finest electropop the Pets have recorded in years. This was music with a spring in its dance steps, but with a mature and concise political world view to articulate too.
I’m With Stupid is one of the album’s stronger tracks and lighter moments, but for OTT poptastica there are other outlandishly camp offerings. The Sodom and Gomorrah Show sounds inspired by Pulp‘s Disco 2000, so closely related are the chord sequences (it’s actually possible to sing Jarvis’s lines over the intro music), while the words get to the nub of the record’s dark, sleazy heart as Neil sings about going to see a show before heading to a “place down below/It was there I realised/the meaning of the show”.
Psychological, which opens the album, sets the sinister tone that’s never very far away. It’s the Pet Shop Boys’ very own Thriller, minus the scary dance moves. Sinister, paranoid stuff set to a Kraftwerk-like minimalist synth bass, the lyrics hint at things lurking. “There’s something in the attic/And it smells so bad/An undertaker/In a bowler hat…”
I Made My Excuses And Left is musically an action replay of The Killers‘ Everything Will Be Just Fine. A woozy meander toward a former loved one, now stolen away by someone else, and the feelings of embarrassment and depression the scene caused are examined to the lilting beat.
The grandiose opening of Numb, penned by Diane Warren, flatters to deceive. The remainder of the track is a phones-in-the-air experience with tempo turned down. The pained lyrics, about too many thoughts/light/sound/pain, are married to music that never quite complements such contemplations.
Better is the space film soundtrack waiting to happen that is God Willing. It gives a brief, concise object lesson in instrumental interludes, punctuating the halfway point of Fundamental with panache. But it segues into Luna Park, another of the album’s so-slow-it-stops middle section numbers that, while lyrically interesting, fail to hold attention musically.
Yet tongues poke cheeks with Casanova In Hell, notable for the lines “Her sharp perception/He couldn’t get an erection” and “Casanova has the last laugh… his lives and lovers and above all/his erection/will live in history.” Neil sounds just a wee bit passionate too.
Indefinite Leave To Remain begins with a mournful brass refrain but builds, with acoustic and electric guitar to another of those phones-in-the-air moments with lyrics that might be a request for a civil partnership. “It may sound superficial/But can we make it official?/Tell me where I stand…One way or another/Give me your decision now.”
But it’s the overtly political tracks that hold most interest. Twentieth Century, an articulate examination of the war in Iraq, musically feels like a companion piece to Psychological, again with minimalist synth bass and just the vaguest suggestion of beats. The lyrics, as with so much of Fundamental, are subtle and resonant. “Sometimes the solution is worse than the problem… I bought a ticket to the revolution and I cheered when the statues fell/Everyone came to destroy what was rotten but they killed off what was good as well.”
After making us wait patiently for a big gay disco track they finish with the dancetastic Integral. Synth robot vocals, high kicks and an anthemic chorus make it the equal of anything they’ve done in the last decade, but they couple the euphoric music with terrifying lyrics about humans becoming robots, about governments knowing too much and using their knowledge to sinister ends. The robot voice hammers home the link to New Labour, the party Neil once supported: “We’re concerned/You’re a threat/You’re not integral/To The Project”. It’s a two-man protest against the introduction of ID cards as a disco anthem. Only the Pets could do this.
It’s been said many times that the Pet Shop Boys are task masters at creating intelligent pop music. But with tracks like Twentieth Century, I’m With Stupid and Integral, Fundamental is the thinking person’s electropop album of 2006 so far.