In the 1980s, Depeche Mode and the Pet Shop Boys helped synth-pop break into the mainstream. The latter—keyboard egghead Chris Lowe and journalist-turned-showman Neil Tennant—offered detail-rich social commentary about the mundanity of modern life (“Suburbia”) and the British class system (“West End Girls”). Still, the two weren’t pretentious; see their grafting of hedonistic camp onto clubby techno beats (“Go West”) or vulnerable, lovelorn sentiments (the Dusty Springfield collaboration “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”).
Depeche Mode, meanwhile, approached its tunes by employing the tricks of a rock band. Early forays into teenybopper synth-pop fell away after future Yaz/Erasure founder Vince Clarke left, and the band’s music morphed from space-rock oddities and rhythmic weirdness (1982’s murky A Broken Frame) into a darker, post-industrial sound (1984’s Some Great Reward). While subversive enough for the goth set (blame “Master and Servant” and “Stripped”), Depeche Mode, by 1990’s Violator and hits such as “Personal Jesus,” became palatable enough for suburban consumption—and popular enough to fill arenas.
Although recent Depeche Mode output has been dotted with gorgeous moments, including 2005’s spry-yet-subdued Playing the Angel, the last two decades generally haven’t been kind to DM’s muse. That’s certainly the case on the interminable Sounds of the Universe, a series of plodding dirges with amorphous arrangements and zero dynamic variety. Even Ben Hillier’s stellar production job—in an age of over-compression, the band’s morse-code programming, Lynch-ian keyboards and goth-hero vocals are never too slick or overprocessed—can’t salvage these tunes.
Sludgy tempos and unsettling, grinding guitars bog down “Come Back” and “Hole to Feed,” while interesting tunes like the minimally produced “Peace” and the retro-sounding synth-pop jag “Fragile Tension” collapse under the weight of Martin Gore’s lyrics. His sentimentality is usually both maudlin and askew, but Universe sounds like fodder for a high school lit-mag; “There’s something magical in the air/Something so tragic we have to care” is among the many rhyming couplets. Only the horror-flick noir of “Wrong,” a murky, dubby instrumental called “Spacewalker” and “Perfect,” which showcases Dave Gahan’s seductive croon, have any staying power.
The Pet Shop Boys’ Yes fares far better, mainly because the album contains what Universe lacks: laser focus and entertaining songs. “Did You See Me Coming?” is an over-the-top techno romp; a jaunty brass band marches through “All Over the World”; and “Beautiful People” is a soft-focus wistful lament with string arrangements by Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallett and guitar from Johnny Marr.
Such nostalgia permeates Yes— “Vulnerable” and “More Than a Dream” twinkle like late-’80s-vintage Pet Shop singles—but Tennant conveys this lyrical melancholy and longing with a smile instead of a sob. (Credit goes to Brits Xenomania, whose production touch ensures that the album’s layers of keyboards are fluffy, not cheesy.) Even though martini-bar moments drag the album’s second half a bit, Yes is easily the Pet Shop Boys’ most consistent—and enjoyable—work in years.