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According to Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys, America is the only country in the world in which the seminal electro-pop duo is regarded as a relic of the 1980s. In fact, the singer says, the official EMI research he's been shown suggests that the typical PSB listener is between 27 and 34 years old—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. (Should that describe your sorry state, you've got 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's certainly earned the right. Instead, he's explaining why hiring the delightfully commercial-minded U.K. 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. Young people, they've already got. "Like any of our records, this one was just the result of the songs we'd written," he explains. "Where they come from we can never quite work out. Sometimes, it's very upbeat pop; sometimes, it's a paranoid reflection on the War on Terror."
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 beneath him—but with a refreshed sonic sparkle that somehow lightens and deepens the music at the same time. There's no mistaking tracks like "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 in the latter, Tennant croons 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 such Brit-centric acts 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 feature lush string arrangements by Owen Pallett of Final Fantasy. (Interestingly, Pallett says his orchestral outro for that track "was initially deemed a little too saccharine for the song. I wrote a number of alternatives, but they ended up coming around. I like it—it's like the song disappears into a '40s musical.")
Lowe says he and Tennant had considered working with Xenomania for years before they finally hooked up for "The Loving Kind," which ended up becoming a Girls Aloud song (on last year's Out of Control) after Lowe decided it didn't fit alongside the other material intended for Yes. "It was great fun," Lowe says of recording at the Xenomania headquarters in Kent. "It's basically a house full of musicians—one in every room, all doing different things. They all pass around USB sticks and put their little parts in."
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,' " says Tennant, "or, 'That's a good idea, but you're going at it for too long and it's getting quite boring.' "
"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."
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