16 October 2015

“A long way to happiness” – Ramzy Alwakeel reviews the Pet Shop Boys’ Super

Author | Ramzy Alwakeel

For all the Pet Shop Boys’ talk of having made “Electric, but more so”, Super is a very different beast from its predecessor. Perhaps it’s because the duo enjoy playing with expectations, but there is a striking disconnect here between the bright, brash artwork and the sad world lit up by the strobe lights.

The dark side of Super is not the brooding BDSM hinted at by Electric’s wildest moments, but rather the resigned grief of Elysium and Nightlife. Nowhere on Electric will you find lyrics anything like “I live every day like a sad beast of prey” or “no one understands us here/imagine how free we will be if we disappear”; nowhere else in pop music, probably, will you find the line ‘I sound quite demented’, but then this is a band that once shoehorned the words ‘Carphone Warehouse’ and ‘bourgeoisie’ into the same verse.

If we’ve met Super’s characters before, it was longer ago than Electric – they appeared in ‘To Step Aside’, ‘Dreaming of the Queen’, even ‘Opportunities’. And the flawed superheroes who lend this album its bold title are hardly the Avengers.

There’s the ageing autocrat pondering abdication on ‘The Dictator Decides’; the Shoreditch boys hoping their time at the top will last forever (‘Twenty-something’, ‘Groovy’); the star DJ, a celebrity only for as long as he can fill the dancefloor; the ‘Pop Kids’ whose romance and spark is dulled by the tedious march of time.

It must be said, though, that we visit some utterly barmy discos along the way. Oddest of all is ‘Happiness’ with its Junior Senior breakdown – so giddy, it’s easy to miss the bleak message that opens the album: ‘it’s a long way to happiness’.

And while Neil Tennant sneaks bits of himself into all his protagonists, only on closing track ‘Into Thin Air’ does it feel like he’s telling his own story: for four minutes, just like the dictator, he really does want to pack it all in. ‘Too much ugly talking; too many bad politicians’, he sings, perhaps describing the rabble to whom he has dedicated the rest of Super. If we didn’t know a third Stuart Price collaboration was already in the making, it would be tempting – and frightening – to see this as Tennant’s answer to ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, the song in which Bowie laid bare his own premature flight schedule.

‘Into Thin Air’ is Super’s bewitching highlight. It has echoes of Relentless, the wistful dance album that came with Very; a flash, too, of the Nightlife dancers’ slackening subjectivity. This is what Robert Miles’s ‘dream house’ should have been in 1996: a lullaby for the ecstatic. After the sugar rush of ‘Say It to Me’ and ‘Burn’, ‘Into Thin Air’ slips calmly, unseen, out of the club. The day is so very young and instead of heading home our hero walks towards the sunrise, his head full of sound and his feet no longer touching the road, while his friends feign concern at their inability to find him in the darkness.