One could successfully argue that the Pet Shop Boys are one of the greatest singles bands of all time. They’ve notched 22 Top 10 hits in their native UK, only one behind George Michael, a mere three behind both David Bowie and Queen, and one song ahead of the Rolling Stones. They also sent an additional 20 songs into the Top 40, 17 of which peaked in the Top 20. They are pop royalty.
And it wasn’t done in some white-hot flash of creativity; their UK Top 40 streak spans 24 years and 10 albums. In a genre ridiculed for its disposability, the Pet Shop Boys have been remarkably consistent. There has been the occasional misstep, sure (2006’s Fundamental, 2012’s Elysium), but the vast majority of their albums are good to great, and occasionally great to genius (1990’s Behavior, 1993’s Very, 2016’s Super). The band’s latest, Hotspot, is occasionally great – the opening and closing songs are two of the best songs they’ve written in years – but the overall songwriting doesn’t quite have the punch that made their last album so, well, super.
Sonically, the album, the third in a row produced by Stuart Price, is a departure from its predecessors in that it’s not a four-on-the-floor clubfest from start to finish. The sound is more organic – are those real drums being played? – while occasionally cherry-picking touches from previous albums (“Burning the Heather” bears a strong resemblance to songs from the band’s 2002 album Release). The band has never stood still for very long, so this move makes sense on multiple levels.
The high notes on Hotspot are sky-high. The chorus of leadoff track “Will ‘o the Wisp” is such vintage PSB that it sounds for all the world like it was written during the Please sessions, Neil Tennant sing-speaking the chorus like he’s trying to murder someone with indifference. “Monkey Business” is so Chic-like that all it’s missing is a guitar part from Nile Rodgers – in fact, it feels like it’s intentionally devoid of a guitar line for the express purpose of recruiting Rodgers to play on a remix of the track – while the throbbing, minimalist closer “Wedding in Berlin” is going to be a gay wedding staple until the end of time. This song will be the album’s legacy.
Lead single “Dreamland,” a duet with Years & Years, is a conundrum, though. It’s perfectly catchy, but it feels like a song that belongs to someone else. It’s the Pet Shop Boys in the same way that “Fire with Fire” and “Only the Horses” are the Scissor Sisters. It’s them, but at the same time, it’s not really them.
There are two things holding the album back. One is the thought of how much stronger this album would be if they hadn’t released their 2019 EP Agenda and merged a couple of those songs into this album. The addition of “Give Stupidity a Chance” and “What Are We Going to Do About the Rich” alone would elevate the album to ‘great’ status, and given them the freedom to relegate the plain ballads “You Are the One” and “Hoping for a Miracle” to B-side status. But those far superior Agenda songs aren’t here, and that leads to the second issue: track sequencing. “You Are the One” has no business batting second. That spot should belong to “Monkey Business” or, if they were concerned about the album’s second half being too ballad-heavy, then move the far stronger “Only the Dark” into the two-spot and send “You Are the One” to the bottom of the order where it belongs.
Hotspot is a solid album that, maddeningly, feels like a slight disappointment only because of how impossibly high the Pet Shop Boys have set the bar. Any other synth-pop band that was active in 1985 would kill to call this album their own, but for them, it lands somewhere in the 60th percentile of their overall body of work. That is a testament to just how great the Pet Shop Boys have been, and will be again.