On its release in late 1990, the sad, autumnal mood of Behaviour – the fourth album by Pet Shop Boys – felt curiously out of kilter with its time. This was the party at the end of history, and kids from Blackburn to Buckinghamshire were dancing in fields to throbbing electronic beats of the kind that had so thrilled Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe some seven or eight years previously, when they’d heard the first Bobby Orlando productions land. Pet Shop Boys in the 80s were many things – genius pop writers, English eccentrics, queer outliers, but they were also canaries in the coalmine for what would become rave. But no, instead Tennant was mourning the loss of his childhood friend from Newcastle – Christopher Dowell – who had died of AIDS’ related complications in 1989, at the very zenith of Pet Shop Boys’ imperial phase. Behaviour was a working through of grief, and though grief would remain close to Pet Shop Boys’ work (I often think ‘Go West’, that elegy for the fallen utopia of gay San Francisco, is the saddest thing they’ve ever recorded), that grandiose melancholia would seldom be seen in their back catalogue afterwards. Fast forward, then, to the last decade, where after a period of diminishing creative returns, Tennant and Lowe decamped to Berlin with producer Stuart Price and delivered two of their most vital records since Behaviour, raging against the dying of the light by being noisier, more plugged-in, than ever. 2013’s Electric was an out-and-out club record, reeking of amyl nitrate, whilst 2016’s Super painted in big, bold pop colours. It makes sense, then, that on Hotspot, the pensive, adult pop of Behaviour has snuck back in.
At first, Hotspot does its best to wrongfoot you – opener ‘Will O’ the Wisp’ is four-to-the-floor, gurning Eurodisco, a classically Tennant character study of a former face who used to hang around the arcades with leather cap, but now? “Maybe you’ve gone respectable” Tennant fears, singing in italics now, “with a wife and job and all that? Working for the government and living in a rented flat?”. Futures that could have been – be it relationships, careers, lives – is very much a theme across this record. Take ‘You Are the One’, the album’s most straightforwardly gorgeous track, and one of the very strongest points of the entire Berlin trilogy. “You are the one/I was the one” – ah yes, it’s a love song, but the particular kind at which Tennant excels, where the lovers are at cross purposes, making it so hard for themselves (this is perhaps why their cover of ‘Always On My Mind’ sounds so definitive, so uncannily theirs, it captured a romantic disconnect that was already their sweet spot.) Namechecking the Berlin district of Mitte, its pace little faster than walking through a swimming pool, a louche R&B beat over a wash of ambient synths and twinkling top notes. More morose still, however, is ‘Burning the Heather’. The rural practice of burning the heather is generally done at the start of autumn, telling you much of what you need to know about the track’s vantage point, sketching a figure in a pub reflecting on the years having passed; “I’ve just dropped in for a drink, before I disappear.” Once a music journalist always a music journalist, Tennant was keen to point out in the album’s press release that there would be a follow-up to Hotspot, so heavy is the air of finality and lost time on the album (in conversation with the poet Andrew McMillan last year, Tennant quipped that had the whole pop thing not worked out he’d now be working for Q Magazine). Similarly ‘Hoping for Miracle’, one of Tennant’s more novelistic lyrics, sees another character looking back at the promise of their youth, lounging in the sun in Oxford ahead of a ‘not if, but when’ future that never quite came to pass. No more the gaze across a sweaty dancefloor, but the pained gaze that lingers up to overcast skies on a midweek morning.
Pet Shop Boys have always had a bias towards a sonic crudeness – when, in the 80s, they termed their sound ‘punk disco’, they weren’t at all being flippant. Big, concrete slabs of synth lines, with Tennant’s lyrics the mirror reverse – all subtlety, nuance and equivocation. Stuart Price’s production across these three albums has trusted that instinct, and it’s largely been for the best, but when it doesn’t work it can render tracks forgettable. Take ‘I Don’t Wanna’, a typically PSB paean to going out dancing, but the function doesn’t align with the form – simply, I’d believe in the redemptive power of dance more had the song made me want to do just that. First single ‘Dreamland’, a collaboration with Years & Years’ Olly Alexander, appears to gesture towards population shifts and migration – “they say it’s a freeland”, “I’m so tired of my homeland” – but the result as an unusually dull duet by Pet Shop Boys standard, and one wonders whether it would have made the cut had it not been for the high profile guest appearance.
The album’s title refers not just to Berlin’s position as the hotspot of the Cold War (Tennant’s enduring fascination with Russian history has been the longest running sub-plot in the PSB ouvre) but also to the term Tennant would use when younger to describe a particularly buzzing club. The screenwriter Russell T Davies, in his Desert Island Discs last year, spoke of going out on Canal Street alone and standing in the middle of clubs, watching the minimal and the maximal of how people interact with one another – the effect of the best Pet Shop Boys songs is something dissimilar. Like Robyn, individual relationships fade from view, but the fidelity to the club remains. ‘Happy People’ is a lot of fun, anchored firmly in the club and seeing the overdue return of Tennant’s clipped, received pronunciation rap. ‘Wedding in Berlin’ is one of the most playful, enjoyable things Pet Shop Boys have done this side of the millennium, a looping house motif giving way every few bars for an organ blast of ‘Here Comes the Bride’, it’s as arch as two raised eyebrows. “We’re getting married” Tennant deadpans crisply, “because we love each other…we’re doing it without delay.” It may carry all the gaudy punch of a novelty single (no bad thing), but there’s a sincerity too. This is a writer who chose the top of the charts as the ideal vantage point from which to document gay life in Britain from the very darkest days of Section 28, and this wintry take on ‘Chapel of Love’ is genuinely moving. With their first Greatest Hits tour on the horizon, you could forgive Pet Shop Boys for winding down – you could forgive them anything, really – but Hotspot shows a creative force that’s still curious, still with things to say. There must be better acts than Pet Shop Boys, but ask me and I can’t ever think of any.