“The sense of so much missing when the world gets in the way,” laments the ever-observant Neil Tennant, whose reporting skills clearly never left him. Forty years in music and celebrity failed to dull the edge to his lyrics or, ironically, add much pizazz to his trademark drawl. His and Chris Lowe’s 14th album as the Pet Shop Boys, Hotspot, finds the famed duo tackling the modern condition once again with equal parts passion and cheek.
Pet Shop Boys reenter a musical climate they assisted in constructing. It’s evident in the way Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Want You in My Room” and “Domino Dancing” share the same percussion, or how Tennant and Destroyer’s Dan Bejar sport a similar, almost apathetic delivery to their voices. But where Jepsen and many of her pop peers play in the light of the pop, Pet Shop Boys prefer to turn it on its head. Tennant for one eagerly waits for “the moment the dark reopens your heart”, aware that a dimmed club room can offers as much catharsis as any Buckley ballad. For reference, observe the Wedding March-by-way-of-house music-romp of “Wedding in Berlin”. The dancefloor offers more than just space to move, and this duo knows and celebrates this freedom even amid misery.
To cope with gloom, Hotspot turns toward memories and daydreams. As people grow more in-tune with the world’s general chaos, the more it clashes with the ideals of order and contentment, every fairytale and Hollywood film depicts. Alongside fellow electropop auteur Olly Alexander, they pine for a “Dreamland” where they might find the existence they desire for themselves. These dreams lie either in the recesses of their minds or their distant past, such as the titular figure in “Will o the Wisp”.
These songs, along with “Happy People”, belie their sadness with upbeat synthpop. But where “Dreamland” gives you Inflorescent Friendly Fires, “Will o the Wisp” is more akin to Ladytron’s self-titled return. The resemblance speaks to not only Pet Shop Boys’ influence but also their talent, which lets them drop into the new decade, sounding just as current as their understudies. However, relevance fails to put their mind at ease, made evident in the synth chords of “Happy People”; though they approach a major key resolution near the middle, it soon reverts to minor chord melancholy.
Because in the world of Hotspot, existence begets complications. The initial joy of “You Are the One”, where lovely piano juxtaposed with an inhuman voice, offers a beautiful combo of natural and “unnatural” elements in harmony. “Winter, summer, spring and autumn”, they lie in Tennant’s heart. However, with each season comes change as detailed in the penultimate “Burning the Heather”. Here, the Boys find dignity in being alone, answering their earlier question posed on “Hoping for a Miracle”. “Nobody loves you / Nobody needs you / You’re out here on your own / Who can you turn to?” “Burning the Heather” answers with a tough but honest response.
In spite of these hard truths, Hotspot still fights for the listener’s right to enjoyment. A bratty-voiced narrator denounces fun and games on “I Don’t Wanna”, effectively preemptively avoiding disappointment. This character eventually comes around a track later, this time swearing off “the real world” for the disco-funk of “Monkey Business”. His epiphany reveals the unexpected rewards that can follow periods of hardship, a quality of life that isn’t going anywhere but also doesn’t have to hold you back. It’s on “Only the Dark” they take this lesson a little further, embracing the negatives for the positive reactions they induce. Tennant pledges his presence when you welcome the struggle, quite confident in the strength of human willpower not just to overcome it, but also find the merit in it.
It makes sense the Pet Shop Boys ascribe to such lessons. Decades of weathering fame, pervasive social media channels, and a notoriously unsympathetic industry, and they continue to hold their heads as high as they please. When the world gets in your way, bend it to your will.