Ideological oasis

Pet Shop Boys - Release - Parlophone 2002, £13.99

Amidst what has been dubbed an imminent "80s synth pop revival" by The Guardian, as bands such as Ladytron and Fischerspooner enjoy relatively high success in album charts across Europe, the kings of the genre themselves return to the shelves this month, two years after their Nightlife LP, with Release. Despite being very much associated with an era long gone, duo Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have continuously reinvented themselves to varying degrees of success over the past decade, and carry a reasonably large, international fan base even today. Release, however, perhaps sees their style take on one transformation too far. It is evident from the first track, 'Home and dry', that the duo have made a conscious effort to depart from their established sound, which epitomised the 80s dance scene, and settled instead for a sort of 'REM meets the happier side of Factory Records' feel, albeit - unfortunately - rather unconvincingly. Drawing as they did in their 1990 album Behaviour upon the talents of Smiths/Electronic guitarist Johnny Marr, the cheesy synths, drum machines and 'showbiz' chic have for the most part been dropped, replaced instead by a sometimes rather fatigued routine of acoustic guitar riffs, arrhythmic dross and questionable melodic lines. The rather sensational suggestion by a flattering Q Magazine that this is "the new Smiths album" is somewhat misleading, and those buying it on this premise will almost certainly be disappointed. A glance at the track list does not fill the prospective listener with eager anticipation, either. Titles such as 'Email' (a bizarre ballad in which the two 40-somethings contemplate the wonders of the medium), 'Birthday boy' and 'Love is a catastrophe' (which is really an emulation of Morrissey's 'Last night I dreamed that somebody loved me) are indicative of the 'lost middle-aged artists' approach that enshrouds the entire LP. However, in the moments where their iconic and ironic style does manage to materialise ('The night I fell in love', 'The samurai in autumn'), the album redeems itself substantially. The Pet Shop Boys, both originally from working class backgrounds, shaped the 80s synth-pop culture almost single-handedly, managing to add context to their work, extending their shelf life beyond that of the majority of one-hit-wonder dance bands of the period. NME recently described them as "the best band of the 20th century". Their albums Actually and Please were indicting critiques of Thatcherism and the yuppie culture of the early 1980s, with songs such as 'Rent', 'It couldn't happen here' and 'Opportunities', and their matter-of-fact reflection on their own sexuality in albums like Behaviour and Very also contained a very political message. Release manages to retain some of this outlook, which is lacking in almost all banal 'pop' today - a genre which Tennant has himself described as "ideologically conservative" - and in fact is an ideological desert in reality. The track 'London' shines through, which tells the tale of an immigrant who, having been displaced from his own country after fighting for the armies of imperialism, eventually finds himself an illegal alien in London. However, disappointingly, this is a record which, despite some highlights, with even elements of genius surfacing sporadically, sounds rather tired from the very beginning and does little to further the career of these two amazing musicians. Fans of their effervescent earlier work might be disappointed, yet others might find it a refreshing departure. It is more than likely you will either love it or hate it. James Bull