“Hotspot,” Pet Shop Boys’ much-anticipated 14th studio album, was released last week on x2 Records/Kobalt. On this outing, which rounds out the intended trilogy of albums with producer Stuart Price (after 2013’s “Electric” and 2016’s “Super”), Neil Tennant (who’s openly gay) and Chris Lowe present us with a buffet of songs that are both fresh and familiar, hypnotic and pensive. “Hotspot” juggles living-in-the-moment anthems with narratives of wistful reflection.
Giving us a little more mood than its two predecessors, but mercifully not straying too far into “Elysium” (2012) territory (that had many wondering whether Neil and Chris were calling it a day), “Hotspot” gives both casual PSB listeners and the endearingly dubbed “Petheads” plenty to celebrate.
Peppered with nods to Berlin, opener “Will-o-the-Wisp” is a pulsing lament on a former paramour trading reckless for respectable, much to the dismay of Tennant (“You were always such a free spirit/Aren’t you getting bored?”), whose candor and persistent yearning are underscored by the squealing sounds of the U-Bahn.
Released last September, “Dreamland” is the first single, featuring a collaboration with synth-pop band Years & Years. As the name suggests, “Dreamland” is a utopia-like, otherworldy place, a better, more welcoming place full of hope and promise. Delivered with a punchy groove, the weighty messaging and not-so-subtle lyrics around a “free land and they welcome everyone to stay,” “leaving all our worries behind” and not needing a visa to move freely alludes to the continuing global tensions around borders, access and acceptance.
Featuring Bernard Butler (Suede, The Tears, McAlmont & Butler) on acoustic guitar, “Burning the Heather,” as the melancholy second single, sees a misunderstood Tennant contemplating his life’s journey and where he might find himself next, which is anyone’s guess: “I am a stranger in this town but that’s as far as it goes and where I am bound no one knows.” The delicately haunting “Heather” is reserved in the tracklisting as the closing ballad (if you’re playing straight through and are not a “shuffle play” listener), artfully anchoring the end of the album in third-act introspection.
New single “Monkey Business” is all attitude, hyper-confidence and bloated self-importance (“people tell me I’m a legend round these parts”) but this track is pure disco-dosed fun, punctuated with hand claps and full of the-night-is-young optimism and antics with assuredly questionable consequences (“we’re gonna have a party where we all cross the line”). This wonderfully infectious song is what you’re playing on repeat as you’re mixing your Saturday night pregame cocktails.
Weaving these singles together is an assortment of “all-the-feels” ballads such as “You Are the One,” so earnest in its declaration of love, and “Only the Dark,” so atmospherically 1980s it could have been plucked directly from some beloved coming-of-age film; it’s an expression of tenderness and contentment, with Tennant sweetly reassuring “You’re all that I want/it’s all that I need/to be here with you,” and funky up-tempo dance gems found in the ’90s-throwback bliss of “Happy People” and “I Don’t Wanna,” the stylistic counterpart to “Monkey Business,” even if the music belies the subject matter. Tennant’s subject is insecure, introverted and simply doesn’t wanna go dancing, but this song is absolutely meant to be danced to, perhaps he might come around?
“Wedding in Berlin,” the final track, wraps up “Hotspot” with a positive message and a surprise appearance by Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” but comes across as an uninspired effort without much lyrical or emotional depth.
Without question, “Hotspot” is an overall win, an absolute treat to spend time with and a satisfying conclusion to their Price collaboration. No matter what direction they head next, Pet Shop Boys are still here, still relevant, still masters at balancing powerful pop with insightful message, here with a little more gravitas. Don’t sleep on this beautifully executed album.