HOTSPOT / PET SHOP BOYS
Pet Shop Boys outlook: Lukewarm in places with a biting political cold front coming in from the East, but enough sunshine to make it feel pleasant
New Pet Shop Boys album klaxon! After the career reboot of 2013’s “Electric” and the sometimes patchy follow up (2016’s “Super”), “Hotspot” completes the Stuart Price-produced triptych. Recorded at Hansa Studios, and with Berlin now a virtual second home, this is the most political of the three records, defiantly European in sound and outlook. It cleverly drops in analogue synth sounds and a bit of 90’s housey-rave without ever sounding like it’s looking over its shoulder to memories of imperial phases past.
Bookended by two tracks firmly located in the German capital, ‘Will- O-The-Wisp’ forcefully kicks off proceedings. Although disappointedly not a tribute to Kenneth Williams, it does bring to mind thoughts of Neil and Chris sipping prosecco in the legendary Berghain, wryly observing the debauchery around them. A very Pet Shop Boys image. The track feels like a joyous overspill from the bangers on their previous two records, flirtatiously depicting a former party boy (‘such a handsome thing’) but now – as Neil Tennant disdainfully observes in full deadpan mode – “respectable with a wife and job and all that.” Namechecking Nollendorfplatz and Warschauerstraße, it’s a weird love letter to Berlin, comparing the debauchery of the city’s past with the more sanitised version of today.
Closing the album ‘Wedding in Berlin’ is a slightly daffy club workout with a serious point (celebrating marriage of any kind), underpinned by blasts of Wagner’s ‘The Wedding March’ (revisiting a familiar PSB trick of sampling classical music). It sounds tongue in cheek, but sweetly genuine at the same time, reminding you that the “irony” tag they were saddled with earlier in their career was unfair. There’s real heart beneath the beats.
Last year’s ‘Agenda’ EP was their most explicit reflection of the immediate political landscape, and similar themes are threaded through this album with varying degrees of subtlety. The single ‘Dreamland’ - a collaboration with Olly Alexander - neatly walks a line between an imaginary utopian past, and a depressingly real present. It hopes for a world where talk of building walls and immigration quotas don’t exist (‘They say it’s a free land’). But it also slyly lambasts the rose-tinted addiction to a past that doesn’t exist (‘It’s a kind of amnesia/ where all problems seem to disappear’).
‘Hoping for a Miracle’, which could be the album’s best track, swirls in lush ‘Being Boring’ style atmospherics, and couldn’t sound more lyrically on-the-money if it tried. It’s impossible not to trace it back to a certain class of privileged establishment figures (and one in particular) when Neil Tennant talks of ‘a meadow in Oxford where you sat in the sun/the expectation that you’d be number one/A leader of men/You know not if but when’. When it later goes on to state that ‘there’s no thought of surrender’, it feels like political commentary so current that it could have been written by Laura Kuenssberg.
Given that their last two albums went for it in terms of upping the banger quota, oddly the albums weakest spots are the up-tempo tracks that often sound generic and forgettable. ‘Monkey Business’ is fun but throwaway, aping some Chic-era 70’s strings that dance around the track with precision, but it doesn’t lodge in the memory. Neither does the repetitive, early 90’s sounding ‘Happy People’, although it does square itself in a modern Instagram world of ‘Happy people/living in a sad world.’
But ‘Burning the Heather’ is beautiful - wistfully capturing the passing of seasons in a bucolic haze, where ‘sheepdogs are running hell for leather.” And in the line “I just dropped in for a drink/ Before I disappear”, Neil Tennant perfectly encapsulates his front man persona. Someone who sidles up to you in a bar to sagely observe the madness of modern life, before being absorbed into the night.