•• revised on 6/17/06 and 11/04/07 ••
Genres: Synthpop, electronic
Release date: June 27, 2006
The phrase "return to form" keeps getting attached to the new Pet Shop Boys album, but I think this is more an expression of relief that they've moved in a different direction from the rock experimentation of their last outing, 2002's Release. "Return to form" also implies that they lost it with Bilingual (1996), Nightlife (1999) and Release, and that's simply not true. Admittedly, they haven't produced a wholly cohesive album since Very (1993), but their songwriting and production skills have only grown richer with time, and Fundamental is another glowing example. Even the Fundamental tracks that at first underwhelm – take slower tracks "I Made My Excuses and Left" and "Indefinite Leave to Remain" as examples – gradually reveal their subtle pleasures (I love the use of strings and the strange voice in "Excuses") until any doubts about these songs melt away and, now in late 2007, have become adored favorites.
Many of the richest moments of Fundamental, not surprisingly, come on the up-tempo material: With its refrain of "An empty box / An open space / A single thought leaves a trace," the stamp of Trevor Horn's orchestral production and the nod to New Order-styled guitar at the end, "Minimal" is entrancing; it feels like elegant dance music for grown-ups. Anthemic album closer "Integral," a scathing stab at government intrusion of personal freedom ("If you've done nothing wrong, you've got nothing to fear / If you've something to hide, you shouldn't even be here"), is arguably their most rousing stomper since "Go West." "The Sodom and Gomorrah Show," whose sound is actually not far removed from the rock vibe of Release, rises to similar heights, and I can't get enough of the paranoid chants of "Psychological" (Who's that knocking at the cellar door?) and the political satire of "I'm with Stupid" (No one understands me, where I'm coming from / How could I be with someone who's obviously so dumb), each of which shine among the dance tracks. This album's sleeper is "Twentieth Century," buried in the latter half with an irresistible melody and an astute observation that works on the personal and political level: "Sometimes the solution / Is worse than the problem / Let's stay together."
The Boys have never been ashamed to be shameless – think the use of Cher's vocoder effect on Release – and on Fundamental it's the treacly downer "Numb," penned by the powerhouse balladeer Diane Warren, who has written countless bombastic hits from the '80s to the '00s. This track had already been held over from their recent hits compilation, and, on a different day, you could imagine them dumping it as a b-side. Nevertheless, it has that sappy quality that might click with American adult contemporary radio if given the chance.
Lyrically, there's perhaps a bit too much of the world and not enough of the personal on Fundamental; there's nothing that captures a life moment or epiphany in the way of a "Liberation," "Nervously" or "Being Boring," and then there's the outright silliness of "Casanova in Hell," although I do like that song's brass and "ooh-ooh" background vocals that Neil Tennant does so well. Ultimately, Fundamental is, as usual, a quality electronic pop album, and one that will likely be remembered as a highlight of the late PSB era. To paraphrase one of their classic lyrics, some 20 years after "West End Girls," it's fabulous they're still around today.
// About the bonus disc, Fundamentalism // The one new track here, "Fugitive," stirred some controversy because it's from the perspective of a terrorist, but it's an excellent dance track that should have made the album. The rest are seven mixes of six different songs, including the Dusty Sprinfield track "In Private," here with Elton John on vocals. To their credit, they've offered mixes here that are not total deconstructions of the originals, but they're also fairly indistinct. The real keeper is the Melnyk Heavy Petting Mix of "I'm with Stupid;" it strips away the somewhat shrill brass of the album version, casting the lyrics against a dark bed of sound that feels more in tune with the song's theme. Overall, not nearly as good as the Release bonus disc.
// Worth seeking // American fans will want to import the "I'm with Stupid" single for the outstanding b-sides, "The Resurrectionist" and "Girls Don't Cry."