Thirty five years since their imperious debut single ‘West End Girls’, it’s easy to overlook the unique position that NME Godlike Geniuses Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe occupy in the pop landscape – as at home crafting a Cardi B or Brandon Flowers-approved synth-pop banger as they are devising a ballet or scoring an 1920s Russian propaganda film.
Similarly, it’s tempting to take for granted their unwaveringly high quality control: tracks from their last two albums, 2013’s ‘Electric’ and 2016’s ‘Super’, easily hold their own against their enviable arsenal of hits, updating their core DNA with a modern shimmer. Petheads have never had to deal with the sinking feeling of seeing their favourite act sleepwalk into a heritage act cul-de-sac nor, despite once branding themselves “The Smiths you can dance to”, grapple with watching their idols develop problematic boomer-in-chief opinions as they age.
Completing their trilogy of Stuart Price-produced records, ‘Hotspot’ was recorded partly at Berlin’s Hansa studios – famous for their one-time-collaborator David Bowie’s ‘Low’ and ‘Heroes’ – and references to the city abound: the opening Christopher Isherwood-inspired electro juggernaut ‘”Will-o-the-Wisp’ is set on the U-Bahn, while Mitte and Zehlendorf are name-checked on the lovelorn ‘You Are the One’. With a greatest hits tour due this year, the perpetually forward-moving duo perhaps are in a reflective mood.
The analogue-sounding synths often tip a wink to their back catalogue: a melody from ‘Jealousy’ here (on the gorgeous ‘Only the Dark’) the slow-burn majesty of ‘Burning the Heather’ – featuring Bernard Butler on guitar – could be a cut from ‘Release’, while ‘Happy People’ is a euphoric ‘90s euro-house/’80s italo-disco number that sounds like a mash up of about 12 different PSB classics.
Their 14th album even opens with references to a train – just as their 1986 debut ‘Please’ did (with ‘Two Divided by Zero’). In an era when pop is increasingly confessional and conversational, Tennant feels incongruous in his ability to spin astutely-observed short stories in four minutes, with needling details: on ‘Will-o-the-Wisp’, he weaves the narrative of somebody catching the glimpse of a party animal they’ve lusted after for years. “But maybe you’ve gone respectable?” our narrator ponders. “With a wife and job and all that / Working in local government and living in a rented flat.”
‘Hotspot’ neither sounds retro nor particularly chasing of current trends: even a team-up with Years & Years’ Olly Alexander on ‘Dreamland’ feels less like a land-grab for Gen Z relevancy and more a genuine, organic meeting of minds: the elder statesman of a particular type of sophisticated pop (and one that resonates with the queer community) knighting his natural successor. It also smuggles in a trenchant political message about Brexit and the migrant crisis beneath its gleaming pop sheen, with Tennant dreaming of a land “Where you don’t need a visa / You can come and go and still be here”.
After last year’s tub-thumping ‘Agenda’ EP – which tackled Trump and the wealth gap with satirical lyrics that seemed too on the nose – it’s a return to what they do best: expertly saying their piece while slyly containing enough hooks that means even hardline home secretary Priti Patel would dance to it.
Equally, ‘Hoping for a Miracle’ vividly paints the picture of a privileged narcissist growing up in the meadows of Oxford with the “expectation that you’d be number one / A child of the sun / A leader of men / You know not if but when” – which sounds like Boris Johnson’s Wikipedia page, even if Tennant has clarified in interviews that it’s actually the latest in a lineage of Pets songs about Tony Blair. That the album is both defiantly European and quintessentially British seems like a protest against the climate of insular nationalism in itself.
On the escapist flipside, there’s the deliriously bonkers disco of ‘Monkey Business’, on which Tennant demands “Bring me margaritas! Champagne and red wine! We’re gonna have a party where we all cross the line!”, like Daft Punk producing Robbie Williams at his most insouciant and tongue in cheek. ‘I I Don’t Wanna’ sees a sexually-timid wallflower reluctantly shed his clubbing L-plates, showing they’re not ready to hang up their nightclubbing spurs as foremost chroniclers of the escapist power of the dancefloor.
‘Hotspot’ comes full-circle with the techno of ‘Wedding in Berlin’, which suggests that the ‘Will-o-the-Wisp’ protagonists got hitched. It’s an equal-marriage celebration that puts a donk on Felix Mehendelson’s ‘Wedding March’ (really), and feels like a gurning groom tossing a bouquet in Berghain. It’s the sole stumble on an album that hosts some of their loveliest melodies yet.
Indeed, if there’s one minor criticism you could level at ‘Hotspot’, it’s that the consistency of their recent output means it now feels comfortably familiar business as usual. There’s no jolting shock-of-the-new: they’re just reassuringly here, refining what they do best.