For many people, Pet Shop Boys are epitomized by their first hit and UK number one, ‘West End Girls’. It certainly had a huge impact and set the scene for their ‘imperial phase’, which ran for a good 8 years of hits until their most successful and only UK number one album, ‘Very’. Their final (to date) huge hit single was the unashamedly camp disco cover of The Village People’s ‘Go West’, which got to number two in the UK chart in 1993. Listen to the radio now, and you’d think they hadn’t released anything since, but that couldn’t be further from the truth! As well as 9 ‘traditional’ albums, they have also written musical theatre, film soundtracks, and even ballets.
‘Before’ was the opening single from their fifth album ‘Bilingual’ and the Danny Tenaglia production melds the Latin rhythms that suffuse the album with classic house. Almost the definitive ‘sad banger’.
The genesis of Pet Shop Boys seventh studio album, ‘Nightlife’, was working with Jonathan Harvey on the stage musical which eventually became ‘Closer To Heaven’. The lead single ‘I Don’t Know What You Want, but I Can’t Give It Any More’ is, like ‘Before’, another sad banger produced by a major house DJ/producer (in this case David Morales). As with ‘Bilingual’ the rest of the album never quite lived up to the promise of the single (for me at least), but it is as classic a piece of 90s pop/house as you will find.
2002’s ‘Release’ is a largely forgettable affair. While ‘Home & Dry’ has a certain charm, the majority of the album’s guitar and piano driven arrangements just don’t really work. It does, however, include the devastatingly raw ballad ‘Love Is a Catastrophe’.
2006’s ‘Fundamental’ reunited the band with Trevor Horn, producer of ‘Introspective’. While this was perfectly serviceable, it felt rather like a band going through the motions (especially on the Diane Warren song ‘Numb’, even giving it a political spin couldn’t get away from the generic blandness). The decision to work with Xenomania for 2009’s ‘Yes’ proved to be rejuvenating, and spawned the two-year Pandemonium world tour. ‘The Way It Used To Be’ is a melancholy examination of a relationship on the rocks. It really should have been a single.
In 2012 the band released their final album for Parlophone, the frankly underwhelming ‘Elysium’. I had pretty much written them off at this point, but the announcement that they had been working with Stuart Price (who had done stellar work with artists as diverse as Scissor Sisters, The Killers and Madonna) on the album ‘Electric’ in early 2013 made me change my mind. The closing track of the album, ‘Vocal’, is a celebration of 90s dance music and club culture and a lament for when artists were ‘lonely and strange’.
The collaboration with Stuart Price proved to be a creative one, and ‘Electric’ was followed by ‘Super’ (2016) and ‘Hotspot’ (2020) to form a loose trilogy of albums. While the subsequent albums aren’t as fully formed statements of intent as ‘Electric’, they both showcase a band not content to rest on their laurels or wallow in past glories. ‘Will o’the wisp’ is the sound of a band growing old as disgracefully as the titular character. Long may they continue!