The Pet Shop Boys make happy music for happy people, or so you would initially think listening to their disco-friendly pop anthems, loaded as they are with bouncy artificial beats, catchy hooks and easy-on-the-ears cushions of synthesizers.
Underneath this placid state of shallow contentment, however, lies an intangible feeling of disconnectedness and dissatisfaction, the aural equivalent of a psychological wound that keeps bleeding and hurting no matter how many times you’ve tried to heal it.
This fascinating paradox turned the Boys’ perf at the Universal into a much more transcendental affair than what one with only a passing knowledge of the British duo’s catalog of hit singles would have foreseen.
Combining old favorites such as “Always on My Mind” with more recent fare (“A Red Letter Day” from 1996’s “Bilingual” was a highlight) and tunes from their new album “Release,” vocalist Neil Tennant and keyboardist Chris Lowe delivered a breezy two-hour set that explored the bitter sweetness inherent in all quality pop. The new songs proved that, if anything, the duo’s ability to use the genre’s conventions to their advantage has only increased with time.
Because the Boys are not exactly the kind of extroverted performers that pepper their shows with elaborate dance routines, the gig’s lighting design was unusually subtle and restrained. During the atmospheric “London,” for instance, Tennant was a mournful shadow, enveloped in fog, backlit by piercing beams of shimmering purples and dark blues.
Toward the end of the evening, a minimalistic version of the group’s first hit, the cinematic “West End Girls,” summed up perfectly the Boys’ aesthetic of languid melodies and repressed longing. In the ’80s, this stuff sounded fluffy and slightly foolish. These days, it has an irresistible air of nostalgia about it.