4 May 2024

Review: Nonetheless by Pet Shop Boys

From The Sampler, 2:30 pm on 4 May 2024
Pet Shop Boys

Photo: Supplied

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I recently spoke to someone who had never heard of the Pet Shop Boys, and during our conversation, realised how much they’d soundtracked my early years, and how much of an impression they left. Revisiting childhood favourites can be a risky proposition, but all these years later, Chris Lowe’s keyboards and Neil Tennant’s vocal tone still go down extremely smoothly. 

In 1999 they entered the Guinness Book of Records as the most successful duo in UK music history, but I confess I hadn’t heard much from them recently. The wave of media attention around their new album, Nonetheless, prompted me to look into their catalogue, and learn that they’ve been consistently releasing albums since the ‘80s, and that all those albums have been critically well-received. 

So it would be wrong to call their latest a ‘return to form’, but it does seem to be resonating particularly strongly. To my ears, they’ve pared down the electro arrangements to their essentials, and let the strength of Tennant’s melodies soar. 

The string-laden disco rush of ‘Loneliness’ almost sounds like something plucked from the Pet Shop Boys ‘80s catalogue, and maybe that’s why it works so well. 

They worked with producer James Ford, the former member of Simian Mobile Disco who’s gone on to produce albums by Florence and the Machine, Arctic Monkeys, Depeche Mode, and many more.

His advice to Pet Shop Boys was to strip back their arrangements to the bare essentials, and I think that’s what evokes such a sense of nostalgia… although there is frequent accompaniment from a full orchestra too.   

Neil Tennant doesn’t seem to have lost a step, still conjuring up lines that please and surprise. He’ll inject the odd unexpected note, never too sugary but pleasingly lateral. 

His sexuality was subject to debate until he came out as gay in the ‘90s. A track here called ‘New London Boy’ seems to address gay culture pretty explicitly, and sounds like a partner to their massive hit ‘West End Girls’. It even includes some of Tennant’s amusingly polite spoken word.

The first half of Nonetheless leans into those sparse ‘80s anthems, and then in the second gets somewhat sillier. There’s a song referencing the Euro music style known as schlager, one about the Greek mythological figure Narcissus, and others involving acoustic guitars and bossa nova drums. 

It’s the first Pet Shop Boys album in a while to be distributed by Parlophone, and the major label boost may be why this one is getting a bit more attention. Regardless, it’s mostly successful, a winning mix of familiar, and fun, with some old-fashioned London charm.