There are a couple surprises on the Pet Shop Boys’ new Release (Sanctuary), but the duo’s prominent use of electric guitar–after 16 years of relying almost exclusively on synthesizers–isn’t one of them. Though much has been made of former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr’s contributions to the album, the plangent riffs and adornments he adds to the bulk of its songs are polite enough that they register as variations on Chris Lowe’s synth leads. Overall the album feels warmer and more “natural” than the Boys’ previous work–though there are still a handful of tunes with keyboard melodies, like the sly trance track “The Samurai in Autumn”–but the transformation is hardly shocking. What is surprising, though, is that Release’s dance-driven songs are outnumbered by its ballads, a choice that spotlights vocalist Neil Tennant’s lyrics. As on 1999’s Nightlife, Tennant is preoccupied by good relationships gone sour and iffy ones gone iffier. Long-distance affairs are the crux of “Home and Dry,” in which Tennant begs his faraway lover to come see about him, and “E-mail,” where he turns the ad-copy line “Communication’s never been as easy as today” into a heartbreakingly tender plea. Even when Tennant musters his bravado–on “I Get Along” he follows the title phrase with “without you very well,” and on “You Choose” he makes the stiff-upper-lip declaration “You don’t fall in love by chance”–he still sounds so vulnerable you want to hug him. The album’s high point, though, is “The Night I Fell in Love,” a fantasy in which Tennant plays a schoolboy who meets Eminem backstage (“Hey, man,” the rapper says, “Your name isn’t Stan, is it? / We should be together!”) and has a one-night stand with him (“Next morning we woke / He couldn’t have been a nicer bloke / Over breakfast made jokes / About Dre and his homies and folks”). In contrast to the multimedia extravaganzas of previous outings, the stage show on this tour is said to be stripped-down to emphasize the Boys’ songwriting. Tuesday, May 28, 8 PM, Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine; 773-275-6800 or 312-559-1212.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chris Floyd.