You know where you went wrong: Elysium

The first thing you notice about “Leaving” is how much warmth Neil Tennant can coax out of singing without affect. A voice attenuated only slightly by age gives lines like “Our love is dead, but the dead they’re still alive/In memory and thoughts and the context they provide” the wryness of a late Philip Larkin poem. The first thing you notice about its host album Elysium is how much the Pet Shop Boys need affect. The harmonic counterpoint, string blasts:  the aural elements that more than Tennant’s lyrics swath the tracks in their notorious irony. Since Tennant and partner Chris Lowe are the greatest manipulators of irony in the rock era — Randy Newman should have consulted them years ago — fans are accustomed to the acuity with which Tennant-Lowe punch semaphores of feeling out of distance; for many of us distance is the only legitimate, non-kitsch way in which we can project feeling. Elysium is a disappointment because with two exceptions (“Ego Music” the worst culprit) they pretend they’re singer-songwriters instead of singer-songwriters whose reliance on the virtues of disco is as indivisible from their aesthetic as savage primary colors are for Matisse.

Tennant and Lowe aren’t above the jokes that formed the cornerstones of their serious work; the difference is now the duo space them out like antibiotics. A denizen of those eighties package tours compliments the Boys for not looking “too rough” and wonders aloud why they act so funny “in those old videos” in a brief track called “Your Early Stuff.” Although it works on its own terms and lingers not a minute longer than necessary, it’s embarrassing — remember when the Woody Allen character in Stardust Memories got pummeled by fans worried that he’d no longer make funny movies? Otherwise tracks for which the adjective “autumnal” was created dominate: a dignified option for a duo pushing sixty but does little to dispel the aura of the vestigial, not when an album released ten years ago called Release is to be had cheap on Amazon. On occasion — the leadfoot remake of 1993’s aren’t-pop-stars-vain stomper “Yesterday When I Was Mad” called “Ego Music” — they can’t dispel the sense of desperation; they’re reexamining tropes that have hardened into convictions (what can they do with a spoken-word section in 2012?).

At the heart of Elysium is a self-satisfaction that curdles the strongest tracks. Thanks to Tennant’s modest but ever more assured and hence human pipes (has a contemporary vocalist ever sounded more like a smart and compassionate older friend?), this has never been a problem. The album’s title happens to be apt: Tennant and Lowe on a mythical island beyond life, regarding us mortals shrewdly without giving another thought to taking a risk. So credit them for a craft that allows them to part with an elegy as poised as the — of course — aptly titled “Requiem In Denim and Leopardskin.”

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