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PET SHOP BOYS Hotspot gets 7.5/10


Pet Shop Boys
Hotspot
x2/Kobalt

7.5/10

A much loved British pop institution of the late 80s/early 90s, Pet Shop Boys have staged a solid critical and commercial return in recent years largely thanks to their work with electronic superstar producer Stuart Price. Mostly recorded in Hansa Studios in Berlin, Hotspot is the final in a trilogy of albums made with Price that sounds almost too much like you would expect from an updated version of the Pet Shop Boys, which is kind of the problem here. Or maybe not. 

There’s a few obvious singles, a cluster of mid-tempo, Euro-sounding bangers and a few slower melancholy ones about getting older and not being able to hack it any more. These songs are beautifully constructed, with Neil Tennant’s arch vocal and wry observational lyrics supported by Chris Lowe’s familiar wall of multi-layered synths, filled with knowing nods to the fabled Italo-disco movement of the mid-1980s, a sonic style the band perfected on 1993’s terrific Very album, still for this writer one of the cultural peaks of that uneven decade.

At least three of them are excellent – the surging opener Will-O-The-Wisp, the blatant pop of Dreamland (featuring Olly Alexander of current hitmakers Years and Years) and the semi-acoustic Burning the Heather (with ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler). Tennant’s lyrical persona is still intact too – the bored clubber who would secretly rather be at home reading Dostoevsky but still desperately wants to be part of the hip crowd, one eyebrow raised at the idiocy and decadence of the people around him.

But it’s also part of the problem. Shouldn’t they be over all of this by now? If there’s one track here that cuts to the core of this contradictory album it’s the recent single Monkey Business, a superficial, all-out party song complete with thumping 80s bassline and 70s disco strings that nonetheless exudes contempt for its protagonist, a narcissistic Weinstein-type bully who wants to party on until the bitter end, regardless of the cost. You know the type and you will probably enjoy the song, but it can’t quite overcome its own internal tensions.

Don’t get me wrong, Hotspot is a fine album, it just feels like a retread over familiar ground. Of course, you can’t begrudge PSB another album where they try to stay cool with the kids, but you have to wonder why they want to do it so badly. After all, in 2005 these guys composed and released an electronic soundtrack album for the classic 1920s Russian film Battleship Potemkin. While it wasn’t amazing, it showed a level of cultural ambition, another direction they could have gone in. At the time I hoped they would stick with it and see where it would take them.

But that was a side project and obviously not the main business model of the well-established heritage pop act. If U2 can keep making epic rock albums, surely PSB can keep doing epic synth pop albums. Let’s face it, it has worked pretty well for the likes of Elton John, the Stones and others for years. Why can’t 60 year olds make great pop music with cool young producers? As some Welsh poet said, it’s the rage against the dying of the light. There are worse codes to live by.

GORDON JONES

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