Pet Shop Boys – Hot Spot : A Review

There comes a time in everyone’s life, when all of the parties every night, they’re not enough. You want something more.” 

~Why Don’t We Live Together?

Hotspot, the new Pet Shop Boys album arrives at an unusual time for the duo. They have found themselves feted by the younger generation like never before, yet coincides with what feels like a victory lap of a forthcoming greatest hits tour called the anodyne Dreamworld, where it should be called Our Early Stuff. This follows Neil Tennant’s 2018 book compiling his best lyrics. It almost feels as though the singer/lyricist knows his best years are behind him. Lyrically 2017’s Super certainly confirmed this, whilst the less said about 2019’s Agenda EP and its sanctimonious Give Stupidity A Chance the better. Renowned for their side-projects – a ballet, a musical, writing for Liza Minelli, Dusty, etc – it leaves Hotspot, their 14thstudio album, as almost an aside to the project itself.

Unusually Led by 3 singles, what a Lucky Dip they have been. They’ve never released such a secession of disparate songs; the fluffy, almost too-effortless, pop of Dreamland with Years and Years, the brooding guitar and slightly slight rural folk of Burning the Heather, and the chunky groove of Monkey Business, which announces a welcome return to their roots, with what sounds like a non-double-tracked vocal, leaving the sort of raw Tennant not seen since the B-sides of their early career. It threatens to turn into 2002’s At Night by Shakedown and drives with genuine abandon. It’s the first bonafide dirty, backroom, dance tune they’ve ever recorded.

They’ve become as strongly associated with  B-sides as they have their (65!) singles. In fact, it’s become an almost depressingly familiar pattern, albums let down by the absence of songs relegated to flip-sides. It’s unclear why Neil and Chris’ songwriting was eclipsed by their poor judgment in album track selection, but it seems it had occurred around the time of 1996’s Bilingual.

It means only their closest fans know how even better they can be. This time it’s the b-side to Burning the Heather, the dirty-brooding synth-heavy Decide, featuring vocoded and droll cool Chris Lowe vocals, conjuring up the dry-ice majesty of club nights, and capturing the blurry Hotspot imagery so closely, that should be included. And the Kygo influenced dreamy, tropical pop of An Open Mind; it’s got more riffs than a Now compilation. It’s the sort of return to form that few bands can ever muster, yet languishes on the b-side of DreamlandIt captures the vibe of Winner, but with less labor. The pop kids are back, but whoever decided An Open Mind wasn’t a single should be forever banned from album-track-listing meetings.

Hotspot is their Berlin album and only avoided being called that because of Lou Reed, and marks one the longest gaps between albums since the acoustic Release and return-to-form Fundamental in 2006.

However, it has been somewhat forgotten that they made a German (albeit not Berlin) album using analogue synths – some of which they had never seen before – in Munich circa 1990 with Harold Faltermeyer for Behaviour. And it clearly suits them, perhaps because just as in their early days, they are out of their comfort zone. This also includes producer Stuart Price.

Mind you, such long gestation, as they ascertained which synth did what, does nothing to explain their return to a 10 track album from 12, featuring in there vides again, single choices apparently plucked at random, and usually un-Pet Shop Boys song titles, such as Happy people, You are the One and I don’t wanna. The last particularly grates from a band renowned for clipped grammar.

The opening track steps boldly from the NYC sidewalk of their debut album into the bucolic mist. Will-o-the-Wisp. The title threatens progressive rock, but actually turns out to be a subtle chant-assisted electro-trance monster. It’s a strolling return to the streets of their youth, with a lush middle 8 of city sounds and nostalgia. It captures the sort of yearning that age is supposed to bury.

It leads perfectly into the birdsong of You Are the One, a brittle paean to a promising romantic liaison and the blossom of early love. It’s a little too close to the saccharine and underwritten The Only One from Nightlife. Things are quickly salvaged by the proto-happy house of well, Happy People, which sounds not unlike St Etienne. The analogue synths of the Hansa studio shove to the fore for the wistful strings and loping rhythm Hoping for a Miracle. Life is a playground indeed. It swells with the hope it so tentatively dreams of. Alongside Only the dark it would fit perfectly on the high tide mark of 1990’s Behaviour album.

It is the closer, Wedding in Berlin, does its best to undo all the good work. It’s propulsive enough to (just about) get away with the rampant sample of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, but it tugs you back into the club when you might have been looking to call a taxi. It’s a novelty song that fits poorly as a coda to the warmth and mid-tempo reflective balladry that has gone before.

Over the years Pet Shop Boy’s allure has diminished, but then it has been 35 years.  It has become impossible to separate the music from the people who made it, yet no one else makes pop like this, and they appear to have had a riot doing so. Hotspot fits together impossibly well, the shiny cold metal of Super replaced with rich mahogany; it’s the linking of arms on the way home, as opposed to the skipping there. You can sense the carpet in the studio.

Most importantly it’s an intimate album that pulls you close, whereas its predecessor kept you at arm’s length. For those in the know, it’s ironically more Elysium than it is Super, and that’s a good thing. Most importantly, unlike recent albums it survives the absence of b-sides (An open mind and Decide), yet it would have been a masterpiece with them.

Previously Published on The Life Assistance Agency