|Pet Shop Boys:
Fundamental Label: Rhino
Record labels have passed the Pet Shop Boys around the last 13 years like they were Winona Ryder. Their 1993 album Very (and everything they released before that) came out on EMI. 1996’s Bilingual was released by Atlantic. Sire put out 1999’s Nightlife, and Sanctuary released, um, Release in 2002. It’s puzzling, really; sure, they do not have anywhere near the chart presence they had in the late ‘80s, but the Pet Shop Boys are one of the best UK pop bands of all time, they do not have a bad record in their catalog, and their fanbase is one of the most fiercely devoted in all of pop music. Aren’t those the kinds of qualities that labels once killed for in their artists?
These days, the Pet Shop Boys are sleeping with Rhino, and their newest album, Fundamental, has all of the makings of a comeback. The band brought back producer Trevor Horn for a second tour of duty (he had produced their single “Left to My Own Devices” in 1988), and the album is giving the band some of their best reviews in years. So why does Fundamental leave this writer, an admitted Pet Shop Boys fanatic, so cold? For starters, it sounds more often like the Pet Shop Boys and Horn are working against each other than together. But more importantly, the track sequencing, in the form of five ballads and mid-tempo numbers in the dead center of the album, brings the proceedings to a screeching halt before the album has a chance to get off the ground.
It all starts promisingly enough, with leadoff track “Psychological” working a Kraftwerk groove and “The Sodom and Gomorrah Show” showing the Pet Shop Boys at their most flamboyant. “Sodom” will surely be an instant smash in the gay clubs, though one can’t shake the sense that the Pet Shop Boys have written this song 15 times already (same with closing track “Integral”). The album’s can’t-miss moment is the explosive first single “I’m with Stupid,” which is written from the perspective of Tony Blair as George Bush’s jilted lover. (“See you on the TV, call you every day / Fly across the ocean just to let you get your way.”) Any fan of the band’s “Heart” will find lots to love here. The ballad “Luna Park” is a gem as well.
The problem is getting to “Luna Park.” Fundamental is overloaded with ballads (including one from Diane Warren, gawd), and while some of the Pet Shop Boys’ finest moments are their slowest ones (“In Denial,” “You Choose,” “Dreaming of the Queen,” “Jealousy”), the ballads here are not their best work. In fact, the songwriting as a whole is decidedly sub par, and not even Trevor Horn’s Wall of Sheen can disguise that.
It’s entirely possible that in three months’ time, the songs of Fundamental will blossom much like the work on the band’s 1990 album Behavior. That album, like this one, was on the softer side, but Behavior was very good at balancing the up-tempo tracks with the ballads to keep things chugging along, whereas Fundamental drifts somewhat aimlessly. “So Hard” into “Nervously” into “The End of the World” into “Jealousy”? No problem. “I’ve Made My Excuses and Left” into “Minimal” into “Numb” into “God Willing” into “Luna Park”? Big, big problem, because by the time they get to “Luna Park,” all of the energy created from “The Sodom and Gomorrah Show” is completely spent. And a lack of energy is not what Pet Shop Boys albums are about. Still, the worst that can be said about Fundamental is that it is merely good, and their worst is still better than a lot of bands’ best. Next time, let’s hope Neil Tennant isn’t so sore about the state of the world, and wants to dance again.