Album Review: Pet Shop Boys - Hotspot

You return home, slowly locking the door behind you. Your ears still ringing, you make your way upstairs. Collapsing onto your bed, the same ringing that was once a comfort on your journey home now pierces the silence. High on the euphoria of the evening, you place your headphones on and search for the perfect album to play. Do you feel lonely? Or is it just the contrast of being surrounded by people and now being alone? You don’t know, but the evening now leaves a bitter taste. You decide on the B-side of Please. No- Bilingual. No- Elysium. You can’t decide. Further searching presents to you option D: Hotspot.

Excusing the heavy-handed vignette above, Hotspot genuinely does fill a gap in the Pet Shop Boys discography. It’s a beautifully jaded album, tailor-made for the moment the lights go down. After two sparklingly upbeat albums, Hotspot is a hangover album for just before the hangover hits. It’s their most supple album in a long time, following a tradition of subdued albums all aiming for the beauty, grace and muted elegance of 1990’s Behaviour. Hotspot is another failed attempt, but it’s an assuredly idiosyncratic album despite this.

It may be somewhat sacrilegious to say but I genuinely love Elysium. Often considered one of Pet Shop Boys worst records, the album has many more detractors than fans, however it really gets under your skin. With its detached vocals and tired synths, it sounds as if Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe were too bored in the studio to even make an effort. Counter intuitively, I love it. It’s a manifestation of the ‘too-chic-to-care’ aesthetic the Boys have been riding on since 1996’s Bilingual. Its quintessential ‘Pet Shop Boys’ even if this is to its detriment. Hotspot is very much the younger sibling of Elysium: fresher, sprightlier, more fun, yet mature enough to recognise its place in the world. It also garners more emotional poignancy.

The third in a trifecta of albums produced by Stuart Price, Hotspot has the unfortunate task of following two of the best albums in their oeuvre. Making a trilogy of albums always presents an unusual task and sticking the landing is the most difficult. Donald Fagen did it with his Nightfly Trilogy, Depeche Mode didn’t with their Ben Hiller trilogy. In many ways, Hotspot is the inferior album to Electric and Super, but it stands on its own two feet as a work with its own purposeful identity. The album’s biggest success lies in its simplicity.

Hotspot is a celebration of the time in which we live, one with faults, but one where a simple declaration of sexuality is something to be embraced.
– Kieran Baddeley

Neil Tennant’s lyrics have always been injected with biting wit and an arch cynicism seldom found in pop. They’re intelligent in a way that doesn’t alienate (yes, “love is a bourgeois construct” but it doesn’t mean neglecting housework.) On Super, Tennant veered dangerously close to losing the grit entirely on tracks like Groovy, but offsetting them against darker tracks like The Dictator Decides meant they shone like the gems they are. There’s nothing as dark as the latter on Hotspot, nor is there anything as luminescent as the former. The album is painted with neon-through-netted-curtain-colours rather than the luminous primary colours that were spread thick over their previous works. At first glance, Tennant seems to have fallen off the edge that Super walked so dangerously close to. A cynical mind sees the socialite-party-anthem of Monkey Business come across as trite and the wilful clichés of You are the One come across as saccharine. However, a deeper look reveals this as part of the album’s identity. Gone are the days the Boys needed to hide behind a veil of tongue-in-cheek witticisms and overarching pomposity, Hotspot is a celebration of the time in which we live, one with faults, but one where a simple declaration of sexuality is something to be embraced. Hotspot highlights exactly what Tennant and Lowe have always done so beautifully; it extends a hand to those who need it and accepts them.

This simple declaration comes in the album’s closing track, Wedding in Berlin. Sampling Mendelssohn’s Wedding March to blasphemous effect, the track is one of the most jubilant celebrations of sexuality put to tape. “We’re getting married, because we love each other… a lot of people do it, don’t matter if they’re straight or gay” Tennant sings, with Lowe’s synths pulling off a similar trick utilised on Happiness. Tennant doesn’t sound as jubilant as one might think but his detached vocals lend itself to the songs emotional gut-punch: this shouldn’t be a bold statement, this should be the norm, it’s just another day, another love and another acceptance of sexuality as something that shouldn’t be contested. Not merely focused around the track’s ceremony, the track resonates as a mantra to all who need to hear it. The Pet Shop Boys don’t care who you are; sexuality doesn’t define anyone. The resignation in Tennant’s vocals suggest it’s just another step in the right direction. With further to go, a jubilant lead vocal may have undercut the song’s message.

The album’s best cut is also one of their prettiest songs to date. Only the Dark features the stunning line of “don’t be scared, cause only the dark, can show you the stars.” It may come across as hackneyed but in the album’s context it becomes a resounding testament to withholding information from the listener: it could be sexual but it is too preoccupied with the emotional impact of trust to directly confront this tension beneath it. The way Lowe’s distant piano chords merely accentuate You are the One’s post-chorus lines, emphasises how throwaway moments upon first listening to Hotspot become integral to the album’s appeal.

Purposefully less immediate than their previous two outings, it is an album built on feeling and emotional resonance beyond the instant pleasure of Super and Electric.
– Kieran Baddeley

The album doesn’t just bask in the haze of winter mornings, however. Will-o-the-Wisp eases listeners in from Super and is arguably the equal of some of that album’s B-side. Happy People is drenched in late 90’s house-chords and sounds like a song from 1999’s Nightlife done properly (a feeling helped by Tennant’s sprechgesang in the verses a la Electricity and Ego Music, as a wonderful piece of connective tissue to the past.) Catchiest of all is Dreamland, a collaboration with Years and Years Olly Alexander which is coated in the amount of melodrama one would expect from such a communion. Far from highlighting the Pet Shop Boys lack of place in modern music, the track merely solidifies how they can churn out hits better than those attempting to take their throne- although the way in which the two weave in their vocal affections does highlight Tennant’s growing strain.

These more upbeat tracks all have their place in a solidly worked-out track listing. The flow of the album is honestly what makes it such an appealing listen. That’s not to say Hotspot is a perfect album by any means. Hoping for a Miracle is the worst kind of comedown after the heights of Dreamland, with the listless I don’t wanna following in quick succession. These tracks bog down Hotspot’s centre, especially when placed before the utterly bewitching Monkey Business, one of the most ridiculous and over the top singles in the Pet Shop Boys career: it oozes from the speakers like bubbles from the song’s champagne bottles. What really hinders the album is its production. I understand the need for the album’s hushed aesthetic and the treatment of songs like Only the Dark is often extremely reverential however, the mixing on songs like Will-o-the-Wisp is quite simply poor.  Some tracks become mere blocks of sound, a shame considering the minutiae of some of Lowe’s synth work. It should also be noted that, contrary to general fan consensus, I can’t stand Burning the Heather.

Despite these misgivings, Hotspot is a work that slowly unravels its charms upon repeated listens. Purposefully less immediate than their previous two outings, it is an album built on feeling and emotional resonance beyond the instant pleasure of Super and Electric. It’s also a welcome bookend to a trilogy of albums that have reignited the Pet Shop Boys place in the musical zeitgeist and reawakened a creative impulse that surfaced briefly on 2006’s superb Fundamental.

The album as a whole is a testament to what the Pet Shop Boys have strived for across their career. Wedding in Berlin is much more than a simple paean to marriage, it is the very idea that sexuality is something that cannot be categorised and looks outward to a time when the obstacles the song blatantly overcomes no longer exist. “We’re getting married, a lot of people do it” why then, can’t we live in a world where the caveat of the following line isn’t needed? “Don’t matter if they’re straight or gay,” hopefully a time can be reached when lines like this won’t even need to be said.