Since the 2013 release of Electric, the Pet Shop Boys have enjoyed a long, remarkable second wind. Hotspot (★★☆☆☆), their third album since departing Parlophone, regrettably loses some of the adventurous energy they have brought to their other recent work. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe do step a little outside their comfort zone here and there, but for the most part they play things safe this time around.
Unusually for a Pet Shop Boys album, Hotspot gets off to a meandering start and takes a while to really pick up. “Will-o-the-wisp” starts us out on a hazy, dreamy note and the album remains in that territory for the next two tracks until “Dreamland,” a collaboration with Years and Years that bumps up the mood. This energy is sadly lost again on “Hoping For a Miracle,” another small-hours track.
Hotspot never coheres around a particular mood or set of ideas, but it does begin to find footing in its latter half. Unusually for a song all about resigned exhaustion, “I Don’t Wanna” features distorted synths that keep it interesting and make it one of the more danceable tracks on the album. “Monkey Business,” the third single released, is a solid, serviceable Pet Shop Boys track, albeit one with horns and strings that suffuse their trademark dancepop with a disco-like feel.
The pace of the last single, “Burning the Heather,” allows it to fit in with the sleepier tracks on the back end of the album but is definitely an outlier in its lyrics and instrumentation. Coming towards the end of an album filled with solid, familiar Pet Shop Boys offerings, the song stands out not just for prominently featuring acoustic guitars to great effect, but for its vivid use of language. The lonely, brooding mood pairs well with the hauntingly picturesque image of the seasonal destruction of the British landscape starkly captured in the lyrics. “Sheepdogs are running/Hell for leather” is a strikingly evocative image, and probably the most inspired lyric on the entire record.
Just as “Burning the Heather” suggests Hotspot is coming down on a sobering, plaintive note, we are hit with a jarring tonal shift. “Wedding in Berlin” is celebratory, but oddly low-energy track built around the line, “We’re getting married because we love each other.” As awkwardly as it lands, the line “A lot of people do it/No matter if they’re straight or gay” recaptures some of the cautiously hopeful utopianism on display in “Dreamland.” Rather than a far-off aspirational utopia, they nod towards a once-utopian dream that for many has not just come to pass, but has become mundane reality.
On their own, most of the tracks on Hotspot would stand as decent interludes on other Pet Shop Boys albums. Their major shortcoming is that all the building blocks are here, but they are barely assembled. We’re left with an album that reads simultaneously as a collection of singles and an album consisting almost totally of material that sounds as though it was written as filler.
Hotspot can be purchased from Amazon and iTunes, and is available on most major streaming services.
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