Pet Shop Boys strip back to go full electric
One of the pioneering acts in electronica, Pet Shop Boys blurred the line between music and theater with elaborate, quirky concerts that made crowds dance and chuckle at once.
Thirty-five years since Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe formed the duo in London, electronic dance music with extravagant shows has become the norm on the live scene — and Pet Shop Boys are again charting their own way.
“Super,” the 13th album by Pet Shop Boys, is their second straight release that is purely electronic, with none of the instrumentation from piano to strings to Latin drums that sprinkled earlier work.
The first single, “The Pop Kids,” sets the tone for the latest Pet Shop Boys period with singer Tennant and keyboardist Lowe embracing the joys of club life yet unabashedly taking the vantage point of elders.
“We stayed out ’til late five nights a week / And felt so chic / They called us The Pop Kids,” Tennant sang of the London club life of yesteryear in his quickly recognizable voice, high-pitched and elegantly understated.
In touring for the album released earlier this year, Pet Shop Boys are also stripping back. Performing Saturday night in New York, the duo presented the musical roots of electronica, performing not as showmen but as a full-fledged band.
“At the end of this strange and significant week, what better place to be than among friends?” asked Tennant, referring to the shock presidential election victory of Republican tycoon Donald Trump. “Tonight, New York, you are The Pop Kids.”
– Theatrics, but music focus –
Tennant and Lowe entered The Theater at Madison Square Garden with typical pizzazz, with each of them strapped to an oval white screen that flipped 180 degrees to face the crowd.
Sporting oversized metallic helmets, Pet Shop Boys opened with “Inner Sanctum,” a steamy house club track off “Super,” before going straight into “West End Girls,” the duo’s very first single.
The duo quickly drew open a curtain to transform itself into a five-piece act, with two percussionists and another keyboardist joining the show.
As if reinforcing the idea that electronica can be a band affair, the stage transformed for “Left to My Own Devices,” the three back-up musicians gliding upfront even as the beat went deeper into the club vibe.
In contrast to much dance music, Pet Shop Boys songs nearly always possessed a deeper layer of irony or melancholy.
For “Home and Dry,” a forlorn tale of the loneliness of long-distance love, the back-up musicians encircled Tennant to accompany him as a mini-choir.
On “Love Comes Quickly,” Pet Shop Boys updated another early hit into the contemporary club age, with a sultrier synthesized backdrop.
The stage visuals ran from bright illuminated balloons to projections of pink-and-psychedelic revolving cubes.
But the show focused on the music rather than the theatrics, with none of the wild choreographed routines or animal costumes that characterized Pet Shop Boys’s previous “Electric” tour.
In evidence of the dedication to the music, Tennant abruptly stopped one of the new tracks, “Twenty-Something,” noticing that a keyboard patch had gone awry.
“There’s no point doing it wrong,” Tennant said, noting wryly a lyric he had just sung: “Life is much more simple when you’re young.”