Pet Shop Boys are as lively as ever, St Vincent makes an art-rock classic – the week’s best albums

Lord of the dancefloor: Neil Tennant
Lord of the dancefloor: Neil Tennant - Icon Sportswire

Pet Shop Boys: Nonetheless ★★★★☆

“Why am I dancing?” wonders Neil Tennant in his wispy choirmaster voice, on a song of the same name, from the Pet Shop Boys’ 19th album, Nonetheless. And if he doesn’t know the answer to that by now, then I’m not sure he is ever going to work it out. Yet as Britain’s most enduringly admired electro-pop duo once again ponder such existential queries to the sound of gleaming synthesisers, luscious strings, parping horns and techno beats, then fans can simply enjoy the pleasure of sophisticated pop craftsmen working it all out on the dancefloor, one more time with feeling.

It has been 40 years since West End Girls introduced Tennant and his synth-playing partner Chris Lowe as a delicately calibrated hit-making machine. A UK and US chart topper, its sleek mix of hip-hop rhythm, gleaming Kraftwerkian synths, crashing drum samples and precisely enunciated British rap encapsulated a bold new electro aesthetic, ultramodern art-pop equally at home in clubs and drawing rooms, unabashedly queer yet unapologetically mainstream.

They flash back to those origins on New London Boy, on which Tennant recalls his arrival in the big city from North Shields a decade earlier, as a 19-year-old History student in 1973. “Skinheads will mock you / Call you a fag / The last laugh is yours / There’s a brick in your bag,” he intones in a typically understated yet affecting spoken word interlude honouring the survival tactics of tough Yorkshire drag queens. “I remember wondering … Who am I? And what will I turn out to be?”

Tennant will turn 70 in July, but he and Lowe remain substantially unaltered by the passage of time and trends. You might think of the Pet Shop Boys as the Status Quo of electro-pop, and I don’t mean that as an insult. Their oeuvre has expanded and deepened, bringing in more analogue instruments and orchestral elements to their underlying synth base, but it is recognisably of a piece – lyrically thoughtful, rhythmically direct, sonically clean, luxuriously produced electro songcraft. I don’t think there has been a weak Pet Shop Boys album in their entire career, and they are not about to blow it now.

Tennant’s highbrow tendencies are in evidence on songs that employ an abundance of cultural references to explore enduring themes of existential isolation and a longing for human connection. Rudolf Nureyev (Dancing Star) and Oscar Wilde (Love Is the Law) inspire two of the album’s highlights. Dante Rossetti gets a mention in Feel, whilst Bullet For Narcissus depicts Donald Trump as the mythical narcissist from the ironic perspective of Secret Service bodyguards who despise him – but are ready to die for him.

The rich melodies of A New Bohemia and The Secret of Happiness aspire to the heights of Burt Bacharach, whilst the jaunty bass synths of The Schlager Hit Parade and Feel revel in the cheesiness of the most gaudy euro-pop. Like every previous Pet Shop Boys album, Nonetheless is clever, fun, and at times very touching. So let’s not worry too much about why Tennant and Lowe are still dancing – just be glad they are. Neil McCormick

St Vincent: All Born Screaming ★★★★★

You never get the same album twice with Annie Clark, the polymathic multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter who operates under the musical guise of St Vincent. The hyperactive edginess and shapeshifting sonic contours of her art-rock oeuvre have made her something of a critic’s favourite as she has shifted from the funky brass grooves of 2012 David Byrne collaboration Love This Giant through the slick Princey sci-fi electro-pop of 2017’s Masseduction to the analogue warmth and sleazy glamour of 2021’s Seventies classic rock and soul-inflected Daddy’s Home. For this critic, her seventh album All Born Screaming represents St Vincent at her very best, merging huge analogue synthesisers with a Bowie and Roxy panache, showcasing lyrics of sharp intent with sounds that startle and melodies that seduce.

Heaven and hell are lyrical touchstones on a set of songs searching for meaning in apocalyptic scenarios. It is a record that throbs with great slabs of distorting synths, pulsing basslines and clanking drum machines, with the added human drum rolling energy and power of Foo Fighter Dave Grohl on the coruscating Broken Man and itchy stalker groove Flea. She reaches towards epic, brassy Bond theme heights on the superb Violent Times, her luxurious melodiousness and sly wit seeking glimmers of light in the darkness. “All of the wasted nights chasing mortality / When in the ashes of Pompeii / Lovers discovered in an embrace / For all eternity.”

The audacious The Powers Out offers a beguiling spin on David Bowie’s classic Five Years, opening with an isolated drum beat as St Vincent seeks evidence of stoic spirit in scenes from the end of world. “‘Ladies and gentlemen, do remember me smiling’ / The queer on the train said as she jumped off the platform”, she sings, mirroring characters and situations from Bowie’s 1972 Ziggy masterpiece whilst picking her own delicate way through the wreckage. “The powers out,” Clark insists but the whirring oscillators and buzzing synthesisers beneath her vocals suggest she has harnessed all the power she needs in her home studio. The curve of the album’s emotional message bends upwards, from hellish distortion to heavenly aspiration. She may know how to make noises that can rattle your bones, but as the co-writer of Taylor Swift’s biggest hit, Cruel Summer, Clark never makes the mistake of letting an instinct for experiment detract from her elegant pop songcraft. All Born Screaming is an art-rock classic for the ages. By Neil McCormick

Justice, Hyperdrama ★★★☆☆

Justice’s 2007 debut, Cross, left electronic music in disarray. Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay’s raucous blend of disco, house and arena rock was nothing if not polarising, laughing in the face of the deliberate precision and careful build ups of then-thriving minimal techno and microhouse. Nonetheless, all agreed the pair were bringing something original and distinctive to an already bountiful French touch scene.

The Parisian producers have rather stagnated in the years since, however, failing to build successfully on Cross’s considerable fanfare with their second and third albums, Audio, Video, Disco. and Woman, respectively.

On Justice’s fourth LP Augé and de Rosnay aim unapologetically for synth-pop glory. Featuring a slew of big name guest appearances (Tame Impala, Miguel, Thundercat), Hyperdrama adopts a nostalgic sound notably championed by chart-topping superstars Dua Lipa and The Weeknd.

The album’s opener, Neverender, has many of the quintessential tropes of French house: stuttered vocal samples; feel-good, bouncy synth passages; hip-tickling drum programming. Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker adds to the track’s dreamlike atmosphere in reverb-soaked falsetto.

The following track Generator harks back to Justice’s early work, feeling at once danceable and sinister. Supersized synth leads jostle for room amongst busy percussion and agile basslines, making for a jam packed mix and an intense listen.

Justice’s fondness of reverb-heavy vocal treatment starts to grate about halfway through Hyperdrama, a couple of forgettable tracks (Mannequin Love, Moonlight Rendez-Vous) slowing the tracklist’s momentum around the middle. Penultimate song Saturnine is a high point; soaring lead guitars and slouchy drums serve as the perfect backing for Miguel’s impressive vocal chops and sunny-day lyrics.

Variably groovy and often catchy, Hyperdrama represents a marked improvement in Justice’s output. It’s easy to see why the band have had such a hard time topping Cross, however: Generator, the album’s strongest track, proves they’re still at their best when they stick to the sound that put them on the map 17 years ago. Luke Seaman

Porij, Teething ★★★★☆

It’s not hard to understand why a buzz has been building around young band Porij over the last few years. The quartet, who met at university in Manchester and formed in 2019, have carved out an unusual sound for themselves that can perhaps best be described as a blend of indie-rock and electronic dance music, layering emotion-driven lyrics with beats. Their vibrant debut EP Breakfast, released in October 2020, couldn’t be enjoyed in sweaty clubs thanks to the pandemic, but marked the fledgling group as ones to watch. Breakout track Nobody Scared followed in 2021 and, since then, the band have been steadily climbing the ladder; last year, they ticked off 27 festival appearances – including Glastonbury and Green Man – as well as supporting Coldplay for four of their Manchester gigs.

Yet things have not been quite so rosy as they may seem on the surface. Just as they were on the up, the band underwent a period of upheaval in 2022 when two members left (guitarist Tommy Villiers and drummer Tom Donaldson). Vocalist Scout Moore (stage name Egg) and bassist and keyboardist James Middeton swiftly recruited two more university friends (Jacob Maguire and Nathan Carroll). The meat of Porij’s debut album, Teething, is a response to that uncertain but formative time.

The 11-track LP – the first proper output from the new line-up – is proof that this is a band marked by resilience who have come out stronger. Here, they take the opportunity to play with and explore their melting-pot of styles (from pop to drum’n’bass) with tracks about navigating your 20s. The infectious Garage-infused anthem Unpredictable calls you to the dancefloor (and ought to become a summer club hit) with an upbeat production that is at odds with bittersweet lyrics about nostalgia for past simplicity (“You could say I miss the ease of early life/ When I would revel in the naked job of everyday”). The swaggering You Should Know Me – ready-made for raves with its throbbing bassline – is a far cry from the stripped-back, exquisitely vulnerable Stranger, detailing Egg’s battle with gender dysphoria (“They were so close/ When they made me/ But they fell at the final hurdle”). Egg’s beautifully airy vocals, gliding the register, lend an euphoric quality to the escapist track My Only Love.

Co-producer David Wrench, who has worked with Frank Ocean, FKA Twigs and The xx (to whom Porij have been compared), brings a welcome polish to the record. At times you might wish for a bit more sonic edge to match some of the biting lyrics, but this is a solid debut from exciting young talent – there’s little evidence of any teething problems here. Kirsten Grant

Songs of the Week
By Poppie Platt

Aitch, Famous Girl
Grime music’s favourite Mancuncian cheeky chappy returns with a track about his inimitable talents, unstoppable ambition and admiration for famous women – Lizzo, Fergie, Katy Perry, Dua Lipa, Kylie – that manages not to sound horridly sexist or too narcissistic thanks to his witty, fast-paced lyrics.

Cults, Crybaby
The New York alt-pop band’s 2011 debut was one of the decade’s “indie sleaze” highlights: stylish, brooding, jam-packed with lust-filled lyrics and riffs. Crybaby, their first new track in two years, is another showcase for singer Madeline Follin’s crooning vocals, set against Kraftwerk-esque electronica.

Headie One, Stormzy and Tay Keith, Cry No More
The London grime rappers reunite for their third collaboration – after Ain’t It Different and Audacity – on this moving rumination on growing up amid rampant poverty and disillusion in the boroughs of Croydon, Tottenham and Norbury: “Nobody don’t wanna cry no more, nobody don’t wanna die no more”.

Overmono x The Streets, Turn the Page
Despite celebrating its 20th birthday in 2022, The Streets’ generation-defining debut album, Original Pirate Material, still sounds zingy and current – you’d be hard pressed to find a club night that doesn’t still erupt with glee when Has It Come to This? starts blasting out the speakers. Now, Welsh electronic duo Overmono give Mike Skinner’s swaggering opener – “Give me a jungle, a garage beat and admit defeat” – a fresh update.