The Pet Shop Boys are unswayed by the argument that you shouldn’t go chasing the glories of your past. Following their more meditative work in the 2000s, culminating with Release and Fundamental, which tackled the post-9/11 political climate as well as aging and heartbreak with uncharacteristic frankness, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have returned to the playful images and sounds associated with their ’80s and ’90s heyday. They’ve clearly found a match in producer Stuart Price, making the rare move to reteam with him for a second consecutive album: On both 2013’s Electric and now Super, Price faithfully creates house and disco throwbacks while adding enough contemporary electronic flourishes to make them feel fresh.
The British synth-pop duo hasn’t lost any of their sense of humor either. Their tongues are planted firmly in cheek throughout Super, starting with a witty pop-art cover so oversaturated and perfectly round that one suspects it can’t be serious, like a gaudy Jeff Koons sculpture. The music likewise doesn’t try to adhere to any standards of good taste: Opener “Happiness” is a genre mash-up that in less capable hands would be a corny mess, but here is positively infectious. The track starts with a minimalist techno beat one can imagine blasting from a hip Berlin nightclub, before quickly flipping the script with a hand-clapping chorus more fitting for a honky-tonk, with Tennant belting in his most blissful high register: “I’m gonna get there, boy, the only way I know.”
“The Dictator Decides” imagines the inner life of a bored autocrat who secretly hopes to be overthrown, set to beeping synths and a militaristic stomp. Tennant, ever the keen satirist, doesn’t simply criticize demagoguery; instead, just as he turned Tony Blair’s alliance to George W. Bush into an unlikely love song on “I’m with Stupid,” he boldly empathizes with the leader’s situation: “Have you heard me giving a speech?/My facts are invented, I sound quite demented.” (If only Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump showed a similar capacity for self-reflection.)
As on the wan Yes and Elysium, the Pet Shop Boys’ material can toe the line of shtick. Tennant might be talking to a younger version of himself on “Twenty-something,” but the advice feels didactic, and the millennial references to startups and smartphones superficial. While Price’s immaculate production has a way of nearly saving even the weakest tracks here, he’s more attuned to sounds than words or narrative, which shortchanges Tennant’s skill. The vague lyrics of “Groovy” are essentially placeholders for a thrilling house beat that seems designed for the group’s upcoming dates at London’s Royal Opera House. And the incessantly bass-building and nearly wordless “Pazzo!” is the kind of gratuitous club-filler the Boys have always wisely avoided.
Super’s best songs cleverly subvert the expectations set up by the joyous music. It would be easy to write off lead single “The Pop Kids” as a mere nostalgia trip, except Tennant has long written about yearning for the past, and its subject isn’t so much reliving one’s youth as the deep and abiding love of music that got Tennant here in the first place—a recurring theme throughout the Pet Shop Boys’ canon, from “Hit Music” to “Vocal.” “Inner Sanctum” is an unapologetic club banger, but one laced with menace, from a weirdly guttural synth line to a warning about fame turning into a kind of blindness, while “Undertow,” in classic Pet Shop Boys form, juxtaposes bouncy synth-pop with a lacerating message about how love at first sight is really a form of drowning. Even when they’re having fun, the Pet Shop Boys never fail to call it like it is.