IN THE EARLY '80s, synthpop sophisticates prized style over substance. But a decade of age and experience is beginning to show, and in their latest efforts, England's cerebral songsmiths seem to have something to say as well as a stylized way of putting it over. And who says intellect and emotion can't coexist (or exist at all) in pop music?
Pet Shop Boys "Behavior" (EMI). In their first collection of original songs since 1987's "Actually," Pet Shop Boys Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe once again take a reading of the emotional climate of the time, and in addition to being a song suite about tensions within relationships, "Behavior" is a soundtrack for walking the streets of Anycity, USA or Europe. Downbeat, more measured material predominates (some consider the slow stuff their best), though the club-conscious first single "So Hard" manages to make a point about couplehood. At the core of "Behavior" is a quartet of gorgeous ballads: "To Face the Truth," "Only the Wind," "Nervously" (in which the PSB "come out" after a fashion) and the haunting album-closer "Jealousy," one of the duo's earliest songs, which climaxes with a sumptuous synth-symphonic crescendo. The only disappointment is the upbeat "How Do You Expect to Be Taken Seriously" which sarcastically chides interview-spouting, benefit-giving pop stars for their pomposity, but shatters the album's intimate mood.
Prefab Sprout "Jordan: The Comeback" (Kitchenware/Epic). His atrocious taste in band names aside, Prefab Sprout mastermind Paddy McAloon has shown himself a sophisticated wordsmith and tunecrafter. And after several intriguing predecessors, "Jordan: The Comeback" is the album he's been promising to make, an artful pop pastiche with a cinematic sweep and scope. "Jordan" comprises four discrete song suites, each centered around redemption,spiritual comeback of sorts, and in songs like "Looking for Atlantis," "Moondog" and "One of the Broken," McAloon conjures a cosmology that includes such secular saints as Elvis and Jesse James, right up to the archangels and God Himself. All this may sound pretentious -- well, it is, in fact -- but McAloon puts it over with smart lyrics, buoyant melodies and a pure pop charm the likes of which we haven't heard since the Beatles, or at least Elton John. "Any music worth its salt is good for dancing," McAloon sings in "Paris Smith," "But I tried to be the Fred Astaire of words." And he comes close.
The Lilac Time "& Love for All" (Fontana). Right up there with McAloon with concocting goofy band names but gorgeous and literate pop songs, Stephen Duffy this time out comes under the heavy, heady influence of producer Andy Partridge of XTC. He laboriously layers Duffy's gossamer tunes with a heavy filigree of Beatle beatification, so "& Love for All" sounds suspiciously like "Oranges & Lemons II." Still, Duffy surpasses himself on the thoughtful political plea "Let Our Land Be the One" and the haiku-like "Honest to God."
The Beloved "Happiness" (Atlantic). Like so many of their contemporaries, the duo called the Beloved recently discovered dance music, both for its energizing and commercial properties, and swiftly dumped their indie-integrity pose and joined the warehouse party throngs. And in their case it was a good idea, as the aptly named "Happiness" is marked by optimism and an Ecstasy-inspired outlook. The Beloved -- a/ /k/ /a Jon Marsh and Martyn Phillips -- introduce themselves with "Hello," one of those novelty list songs (like Billy Joel's irksome "We Didn't Start the Fire").
ABC "Absolutely" (Mercury). A sort of Pet Shop Boys prototype, ABC seemed to have it all sewn up in the early '80s with can't-miss tunes, high-sheen production and a camp take on glamour and melodrama packed into every hit single. The group assumed several artifice-laden incarnations, but at its core were always songwriter/producers Martin Fry and Mark White, and "Absolutely" provides a welcome, if not essential, summary of their career highlights. ABC never surpassed the achievement of its debut "The Lexicon of Love," an apex of '80s pop and production, and four of its key songs are featured here. "Absolutely" also revisits the ill-timed follow-up "Beauty Stab," with its faux-heavy metal surface; and other phases and faces of ABC, including tongue-in-cheek social commentators ("How to Be a Millionaire") and whiter-than-white soulsters ("When Smokey Sings" and "The Night You Murdered Love"). The CD includes four 1990 remixes, including revamped versions of "The Look of Love" and "When Smokey Sings," which have a certain novelty value but can't touch the originals, as is usual with this sort of thing.
Marc Almond "Enchanted" (Capitol). One of the earliest synth duos to catch on internationally was Soft Cell, made up of singer Marc Almond and keyboardist Dave Ball. Ball has vanished from view, but Almond has maintained a devoted cult, and has continued to explore his fascination with melodrama and cabaret in underground pop idioms. His subsequent records have flirted with the tortured personas of such divas and personas as Judy Garland, Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel, married to up-to-the-microsecond electronics. Though Almond's high-strung, quavery baritone is always compelling, and strains of world music drift through tracks like "Toreador in the Rain," and "A Lover Spurned," "Enchanted" doesn't cohere as a collection of songs.
Art of Noise "The Ambient Collection" (China/Polydor). Emerging recently from within the propulsive, frenetic house music scene, is an odd phenomenon called "ambient house." House DJs began burying dance pulses beneath the serene surfaces of "ambient" atmospheric and new age music by the likes of Brian Eno and Kraftwerk. The collected output of British synthtwiddlers Art of Noise lends itself superbly to this treatment, and the "band" itself had admittedly little to do with "The Ambient Collection," which consists of cut-and-paste collages and remixes masterminded by avant-garde producer Youth, ex of Killing Joke.With its dreamy repetition and variations on Art of Noise's sample-happy themes, "Ambient" gets your alpha waves going. You supply the scenario, it supplies the surreal soundtrack, loaded with intoxicating interregnums: horses splashing through surf, motorcycles, unearthly choirs. Caution: Driving (or walking) while under the influence of this hallucinatory album can be distracting, if not downright dangerous.