Electropop patriarchs Pet Shop Boys have remained a staple of the upper reaches of the Billboard dance/club charts for the last decade. That staying power is a testament to the songwriting prowess of the duo—arch vocalist Neil Tennant and his stoic keyboardist sidekick, Chris Lowe—and the effortless way the pair weaves together futuristic synths, surging beats, and impeccable lyrical bon mots.
In spite of this enduring popularity, much of Pet Shop Boys’ most recent output—particularly 2012’s introspective Elysium—hewed toward subdued synthpop that felt more like the tasteful soundtrack of a martini bar. Perhaps that’s why the group sound like it has something to prove on Electric. More precisely, the record sounds like Tennant and Lowe are keen to show how smart, inspired dance music is done. With Stuart Price (a.k.a. Jacques Lu Cont, a.k.a. the man behind records by The Killers, Kylie Minogue, Madonna, and others) at the helm producing and mixing, Electric is urgent and sleek. The clever “Love Is A Bourgeois Construct,” which is based on a Michael Nyman song from the 1982 movie The Draughtsman’s Contract, has hints of Boys Noize’s digital abrasions; “Shouting In The Evening” is hard-charging techno; “Axis” merges hi-NRG electronica with atmospheric synth drones; and the goth-house highlight “Fluorescent” feels like it could segue into Visage’s new wave classic “Fade To Grey” at any moment.
But most often, Electric generously references the type of sophisticated electropop that Pet Shop Boys pioneered on early albums Please and Actually. Scattered throughout the album are the same kind of textures found on those records—from keyboard sparkles and twinkling bells to brisk piano and sampled voices—while several songs are dead ringers for late-’80s Top 40: “Inside A Dream” feels like a sequel of Actually’s “Heart,” while “Thursday” is romantic neo-disco with contributions from British rapper Example.
Despite these retro references, Electric is less an exercise in nostalgia than it is Price teasing out the Pet Shop Boys’ strengths. In this way, it’s a lot like Mark Ronson’s work on the last Duran Duran album, All You Need Is Now. That production partnership grafted the band’s early ’80s sounds to mature songwriting, creating a record that sounded familiar, but not duplicative.
Electric has its surprising moments as well—for example, a synth-smothered version of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Last To Die,” an unexpected cover choice, works surprisingly well. Now that the type of dance music the duo has dabbled in for decades is so fashionable, Pet Shop Boys have to innovate even more to stay ahead of the curve. With Electric, they prove once again they’re up to the task.