Hotspot from the Pet Shop Boys is their open, roller-coaster love-letter to Germany and more specifically, Berlin – a city that has spawned their last three releases, all produced by Stuart Price. Tennant and Lowe have confessed that Hotspot is certainly the darkest of the ‘Price Trilogy’, preceded by ‘Super‘ in 2016 and ‘Electric’ in 2013. Recorded at Hansa Studios, close to some of Berlin’s most famous landmarks including Checkpoint Charlie and Potsdamer Platz, it was also the venue where David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ was born.
Last time I checked in with the Pet Shop Boys, it was watching them memorably perform ‘Always On My Mind’ with The Killers at Glastonbury last summer. Along with ‘Smash Hits’ and ‘No.1’ music mags, their presence in the pop charts was a constant as a kid growing up in the 1980s. They have remained truly prolific since these early beginnings in 1981 – Hotspot is their 14th studio album release.
With the opener ‘Will O The Wisp’, unfortunately, I don’t think Neil Tennant is singing about a barmy, yet brilliant children’s TV programme with the same name from the early-eighties (surely you must remember Evil Edna…look it up!). The track is upbeat yet searching – “You still hang around that old arcade to see what love will bring…”
‘You Are the One’ is a dreamy and regretful road-trip with constant name-checks of places on Berlin’s outskirts – “driving down to Zehlendorf….”. ‘Happy People’ has an early 90s house music feel to it that sits nicely alongside the playful and hedonistic ‘Monkey Business’ – “I’m not dealing with the real world anymore..”.
The video for the song ‘Dreamland’ (featuring Years & Years) pays homage to Berlin’s underground system, the BVG. The lyrics seem to speak of the disillusionment of their motherland, compared with the liberating and inspirational new world they have found – “I’m so tired of my homeland…you don’t need a reason, you can come & go and still be there…I don’t want to wake up…Dreamland is a free land.” The tracks that stand out for me on the album are typically the most tortured and reflective. The first of these, ‘Hoping For A Miracle’ the most poignant – “you’re on the rebound, life is a playground…a meadow in Oxford where you sat in the Sun..”
‘Only the Dark’ is a love-song with a taste of brutality and realism – “Anyone else around would be superfluous…only the dark can show you the stars..” ‘Burning the Heather’ is also in the same vein, albeit with the rare appearance of an acoustic guitar on a Pet Shop Boys song – “You’ve got me all wrong…I’m just a singer of the song, in my mind’s eye…I set out in the dark, hoping I could find the middle of nowhere”. The final track on the album, ‘Wedding in Berlin’ is a misfiring and somewhat disappointing end to a very textured and cohesive collection. It has echoes of a dance remix cut, struggling to find its place.
Overall though, Hotspot is classic Pet Shop Boys, mixing irony, dry wit, sublime pop tunes together with a dark heart grounded in reality. You can almost picture Berliners celebrating its’ arrival on the shelves, bopping into the small hours amidst the city’s vibrant club scene.