By Nate "Igor" Smith
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According to Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, America is the only country in the world where the seminal electro-pop duo is regarded as a relic of the '80s. In fact, the singer says, the official EMI research he's been shown suggests the typical PSB listener is between 27 and 34 years old. That's surprising news, perhaps, if you haven't checked in with Tennant and keyboard whiz Chris Lowe since the immortal "West End Girls" first appeared in 1984. (If that describes your sorry state, you have some extremely pleasurable catching up to do.)
Tennant doesn't rattle off these statistics to boast, though by making some of the smartest, sweetest, and funniest synth-pop records ever, he has certainly earned the right. Instead, he's explaining why hiring the delightfully commercial-minded UK production team Xenomania to helm Yes, the duo's tenth album, was most definitely not a decision motivated by the desire to attract a younger audience. They've already got that.
Yes is a very upbeat pop record, and an excellent one at that — probably their best since 1993's Very. It has all the winsome melodies and wry social observations you'd expect — "Have you realized your computer's a spy?" Tennant wonders in "Legacy" as a martial drumbeat rat-tat-tats behind him — but with a refreshed sonic sparkle that somehow both lightens and deepens the music.
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There's no mistaking tracks such as "All over the World" or "Building a Wall" as the work of the Pet Shop Boys. The former features a sample from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker, while the latter has Tennant crooning this line as crisply as a public-radio personality: "Jesus and the Man from U.N.C.L.E./Caesar conquered Gaul/Scouting for centurions on a Roman wall."
Still, fans of Xenomania-produced singles by Brit-centric acts such as Girls Aloud and Sophie Ellis-Bextor will recognize the deft touch of Xeno mastermind Brian Higgins here, most notably in the vintage-Motown stomp of "Beautiful People," the album's finest cut and one of two that highlight lush string arrangements by Owen Pallett of Final Fantasy.
Both Boys emphasize the value of outside perspective, even after nearly 30 years of expert record-making. "You need someone to tell you: 'That drum sound is rubbish,'" Tennant says.
"It's not belittling at all," Lowe adds cheerfully. "We're all aiming for the same thing: to make the best pop record we can."