I'm not one of those people who thinks that the Pet Shop Boys' fantastic early output is all there is to them. I find that their career has been one of the most consistently rewarding in modern pop, with plenty of winsome moments in each phase. I say this because a lot of reviews here tend to give Elysium a hard time because it "can't hold a candle to *insert preferred Pet Shop Boys album here*", or something like that. While the Boys' latest offering isn't up there with what I consider to be their best work (Behaviour, Very, Fundamental), it is nevertheless a welcome addition to their catalogue, as accomplished and rewarding an album as any of the ones that preceded it, granted, of course, you're open to what it has to offer.
Neil Tennant has said that he considers Elysium "the Pet Shop Boys' most beautiful album", and indeed, there's a very luxurious, serene quality to a lot of the songs here. The arrangements are more sparse and roomy than, say, the ones on their previous record (the much more typically poppy Yes) and the songs here have much more, well, "Breathing space" so to speak. The leisurely tempo and relative absence of bright flashes of colour mean that a lot of the songs tend to lump together upon the first few listens. Indeed, the only one that stands out right off the bat is "A face like that", tense and busy not unlike their 80's work (those who like their PSB anthemic and dancey, be warned: this is the only song here paced to quicken your pulse). But, each repeated listen is rewarded as the pasty facade of the songs peels away, revealing the subtle production touches and an unexpected warmth that comes with the subdued production choices. Tennant is in fine voice throughout. His lyrics take a dip occasionally (the "Catch the bouquet/Let's tie the knot now" bit from "Give it a go" is kind of an eye-roller), but such moments are in the minority.
It's not perfect of course, not by any means. "Your early stuff" spends its' brief two-and-a-half minutes teasing the listener that it might just shape itself into something meaningful, or at least funny, but it just ends up sounding drab to these ears. Then there's "Hold on", the absolute nadir of the album as far as this reviewer is concerned, an overblown attempt at an uplifter that has all the conviction of those "Hang in there kitty" motivational posters. All is forgiven though, for these missteps are surrounded by the tranquil beauty of "Leaving" and "Invisible", the snarky, biting "Ego music" (a parody of self-obsessed celebrity that is home to some of the album's most hilarious lines), the wistful, vintage sounding "Give it a go" and the gorgeous "Memory of the future". "Requiem in denim and leopardskin" closes Elysium on a bittersweet, yet oddly celebratory note, a kind of breezy lounge/disco number that picks up its' storytelling cues from "Being boring" and takes it from there into album highlight territory.
What we have here, then, is a Pet Shop Boys album that sounds "different", not from their signature sound (assuming, of course, they have one; after all, each of their albums was "different" compared to the previous one) but rather from what's percieved (better yet, expected) as their signature sound. It's true that PSB are about the big, stomping, tongue-in-cheek pop hits. But they're also about the downtempo moments, the darker meditations on life and love, the elegant and spacey ballads (wasn't that the point with Behaviour and Release?). Elysium is a perfectly solid showcase of the softer side of one of the best contemporary pop acts, flaws and all. That it's not their "best" or "definitive" artistic statement is a moot point; it is what it is, and it's here to enjoy for anyone willing to give it a chance.