Berlin. Brexit. Bathetic.
Fourteenth PSB LP proper from the electropop veterans and the third of their Stuart Price-produced trilogy.
January. It may be the month West End Girls completed its slow ascent to the top spot in 1986, but it’s a jolly odd month to release an album. Then again, in this post-download world where newer artists ‘drop’ an endless stream of fragmented singles and EPs, perhaps we should be thankful that Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have bothered to make one at all.
The delayed to summer release of the megapop strobe-stomper that was 2013’s wonderful Electric excepted, Pet Shop Boys long-players have usually been an industry standard spring or autumn affair. In the post-Christmas market, January is traditionally the quietest month of the music calendar, where anyone worth their weight in rheingold knows its the easiest time of year to bag a hit, at least in chart positional terms.
Case in point: this elegiac top tenner from the first month of the new millennium.
Now in their fifth decade of outputting product, the duo are still producing consistent, smart pop songs that remain hugely popular in the UK and much of Europe, retaining cross-generational/gender/sexual orientation appeal and selling out huge arenas in the process.
Team PSB also know that any group like them have a consistent core of faithful fans, who’ll buy their latest release early in its first week, giving the album a reasonably high chart entry, but then it plummets in a downward spiral so fast that there simply isn’t time for more fairweather fans to get to like the record before its chart life is over.
Neil admitted as much when I interviewed PSB for a second time in 2002, when he came over a bit Arthur Daley: “You can buy our new single with three tracks on it for £2.99 – that’s astonishingly good value, but it will only really be bought by our fanbase, whatever that is.”
In fact it’s a syndrome – “the Paul Weller syndrome” as they’ve tartly referred to it in the past – that clearly niggles them. The timing of album number 14 appears a tacit admission that the same fate will befall them once again, though perhaps due to the lack of seasonal competition the least they could get out of all this number crunching is a slight improvement on the No.3 placings of the previous pair, the aforementioned Electric (it was) and 2016’s Super (it wasn’t).
Then again, perhaps Pet Shop Boys albums produced by Stuart Price a.k.a. Jacques Le Cont, the Thin White Duke are only ever meant to win bronze.
They would be in good company. David Bowie, the person Price swiped the Duke moniker from, managed third place with the groundbreaking Low—a January album as it happens, but more importantly, the first of his fabled ‘Berlin’ trilogy with Brian Eno that popularised the city’s Hansa Studios. Such was its impact that everyone from Japan to Depeche Mode, U2 to Siouxsie & The Banshees have recorded there, hoping to soak up Bowie’s sonic waters.
Because we’re here, let’s savour the dear old Dame at a Finnish festival in 1997 being watched by support act PSB, who’d just performed their own discofied Hallo Spaceboy. “We’ll do the threatening version of it,” Bowie told Tennant, apparently with a straight face.
Hansa Studios is also where almost all of Hotspot was tracked. It’s literally Hotspot von Hansa. Indeed, so bent were they on having a Germanic reference that Von (“of”, obviously) was even under consideration as the name of the album. Cue mass scratching of heads from Bristol to Birmingham if they’d gone down that autobahn.
Ultimately, it’s called Hotspot as a reference to Berlin being the “hotspot” of the Cold War. The wi-fi link is a secondary connection, though it’s also an overly obvious reference to a nightclub, reflecting the dance-oriented side of the music. It’s also purposefully less sophisticated or conversational than some of their previous titles, such as Actually or Behaviour for instance.
This lead single from the latter album isn’t one of Tennant/Lowe’s favourites but, personally, I think it’s a cracker.
With Hansa’s vast array of vintage analogue equipment lending the tracks a certain air of wistful nostalgia you could be forgiven for expecting an album along the lines of their previous Deutsch disc, 1990’s bleepy, sleepy Behaviour, which they recorded in Munich with Harold Faltermeyer. Yeah, that bloke who did Axel F.
Though with Hotspot trailed by three singles of bewilderingly differing musical styles, on first listen the PSB opus it reminds me of the most, at least superficially, is Actually. The 45s extracted from 1987’s sophomore set—far and away their biggest seller in Britain—are some of Ver Boys’ most celebrated and enduring hits.
Take the wondrous What Have I Done To Deserve This? for example. Dreamland, the lead single from Hotspot, is also a slightly unusual duet with a fellow member of the LGBT community, though the similarities between the bland Olly Alexander (frontman of the nondescriptly named Years & Years) and the majestic Dusty Springfield pretty much end there. Though props to Olly for taking Tennant out of his vocal comfort zone and up into gear stratosphere.
Freed from the self-imposted constraints of the digital electronic purism of their previous Price albums, that Hotspot features both generic vocals and bracing Bernard Butler guitar gives you some idea of its more melodic sweep.
And like an old broom you thought you’d shoved right to the very back of the cupboard for a reason, it’s even available on cassette. A tape cassette. Gee, the Pet Shop Boys Partnership must really be down to their last millions.
What’s the price of an eight-track cartridge these days?
With its melancholic murk and Butler’s twinkly guitar work evoking Johnny Marr’s guest spots on 2002’s reflective Release, Burning The Heather is the red herring of the set. A last minute inclusion recorded back home in London, it’s no Rent. It’s not even Birthday Boy, but this existential ‘ballad of the loners’ has a stately stripped back quality overlaid with some of the album’s less frivolous lyrical content, and somehow conjures up flashbacks to the countryside alliance that was God’s Own Country, minus the bumming.
Though quite why Burning The Heather was chosen as a single is baffling. At least the fun and frivolous follow-up, Monkey Business, studded as it is with hooks galore, sounds a helluvalot more like one.
Monkey Business is one of those odd beasts that you really really want to like, but it’s ultimately a flawed listening experience, with a hideously grating vocal I just find almost impossible to get past.
I had a similar problem with 2016’s The Pop Kids, the boys’ affectionate ode to the London club scene of yore. Musically it pales in comparison to Monkey Business, but it did tick all the right boxes; an effervescent house-lite banger with an OK chorus, alas, horribly let down by a disconcerting and forced high vocal intonation that plagues every verse:
“Remember those days
THE EARLY NINETIES!
We both applied for places
AT THE SAME UNIVERSITY!”
“I studied History
WHILE YOU DID BIOLOGY!
To you the human body
DIDN’T HOLD ANY MYSTERY!
We were young but imagined
WE WERE SO SOPHISTICATED!
Telling everyone we knew
THAT ROCK WAS OVERRATED!”
But don’t take my word for it, see for yourself.
Sadly, Monkey Business suffers a similar fate, albeit there’s a reversal of listening fortune as the verses are beautifully understated, with almost hushed lines making good use of Tennant’s easier-on-the-ear lower register.
And then there’s the chorus. “I’m here on monkey business—just playing around.” It’s based on a conversation the boys had with a man outside a hotel in Texas, which Neil took as inspiration for the song’s narrative persona: a shamelessly hard-partying, globe-trotting hedonist who lives to get lucky.
And if that sounds a little Daft Punky then that’s no coincidence. Whereas 1988’s glacial Heart only flirted with being “Seventies tinged”, Monkey Business is a full-on Uptown funky take on the New York disco of the Studio 54 scene, with Saturday Night Feveresque staccato hooks galore, and lovely little electro flourishes that evoke everything from Chic to Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder to the Tom Tom Club (in particular the groovy Wordy Rappinghood) as well as more recent appropriations by Gorillaz, Jamiroquai, Arcade Fire and of course, a certain helmeted French duo.
It’s a shame because, musically, there’s a lot to enjoy. Monkey Business shines with a fantastic retro-sheen bolstered by a brilliant bassline. A dance fanatic friend of mine once told me she struggled to get into much PSB past West End Girls because she said they were “Scared of bass. That b-line [on WEG], man; why have they never done anything else like that?”
I have a feeling she may enjoy Monkey Business. The trouble is, that chorus is “sung” in that horribly off-putting shouty snarl Neil usually restricts to the occasional live track where he struggles to reach the notes of old. The otherwise awesome It’s A Sin, for instance.
But here it all sounds horribly self-satisfied and self-indulgent and you wonder why, as vocal chores become more of a struggle, in their twilight years Team PSB can’t be more of a broad church that regularly welcomes a range of guest vocalists to take over whole verses, choruses or even songs, and let Neil, glass of premium bubbly in hand, direct the whole thing as Chris works his effortless wizardry on the keys.
Talking of wizards.
It takes a certain kind of sensitivity and lack of ego as a songwriter to be able to step back from your work and say “Perhaps I’m not the right person to sing this song,” but Damon Albarn has absolutely zero qualms about sharing or relinquishing vocal duties in Gorillaz.
Not only is Albarn incredibly skilled in recruiting vocalists with defined voices and personalities, he also knows just how to deploy them in his music to sustain particular moods, and to get across certain ideas or themes.
Take DARE featuring Shaun Ryder, for instance. What a brilliantly belligerent idea it would have been to have a contrasting malevolence like his (or a fellow party boy like Pete Doherty) take over the chorus of Monkey Business. If Neil and Chris can free themselves from that mafia-like gay prism a bit more often, that is.
If you’ve paid as much attention to Tennant/Lowe’s long and illustrious career as I have, you may be able to recall one of the earliest Pet Shop Boys interviews, conducted at a time they were on the cusp of their imperial phase and were still being managed by Tom Watkins. Neil revealed to his former employers Smash Hits that the duo already had a dastardly plan – what we’ll call the Menudo Strategy – for continuing the group without them having to be on stage.
“The Pet Shop Boys will carry on, but we’ll stop being the front men. Instead we’ll change the line-up every year or so. Suddenly there’ll be four 16-year-old boys as the Pet Shop Boys and the next thing you know they’ll be replaced by two 35-year-old Elaine Paige types. We’ll be fed up with it all by then so we’ll just write the music. We’ll be able to spend our time doing the nice things like going to bed early.”
Of course, there was at least one forked tongue in someone’s cheek, but nevertheless I discussed this very topic with Watkins, the self-described “Rich, Fat, Gay, Lucky Bastard,” some time back, and his response was pretty withering but undoubtedly on the ball: “It’s too late now. Neil enjoys the trappings of being a pop star way too much. They would have to share the royalties, which would mean less champagne.”
Ouch. They may be gay pop royalty and feel they have to maintain that position, but a little street cred instead of continually painting the same old corner could work wonders. Let’s give variation a chance.
Still, there’s another seven tracks to discuss. I’ll try and get through them as quickly as I can. But on first impressions it’s a bit like a sonically superior Super on a broader palette.
Will-o-the-Wisp kicks off the album as a hi-NRG Radiophonic sonic scene setter. Hitching a whirlwind ride on Berlin’s U1 “party train” with rattling oscillators and the adventure of two (divided by zero, though one may have gone “respectable
with a wife and a job and all that” ) polar opposites who’d once come together before their destinations diverged. But for how long?
Lyrically it’s classic urban Tennant, just the right side of seedy, a secret lover yearning for one more chance with a “free spirit, a bright-eyed eager chap,” a will-o-the-wisp in a battered leather cap.
From Will-o to wistful. You Are The One, Hoping From A Miracle and Only The Dark veer into slightly cloying MOR semi ballads territory. You Are The One is about a guy who’s struggling to accept it’s over, while I had to smile at the mention of superfluous in Only The Dark, a word you can imagine Tennant trying to shoe-horn into a song for aeons. A stark Eighties anchored indulgence (think Jealousy without the orchestra), it’s pretty but is so pedestrian you can hear the white lines painted down the middle of it.
“Hello, hello. Is anybody out there?” Miracle is again that reaching for hope from the fisting of life. The omnipresent view of wanting something better against a majestic backdrop of strings, nice key change and a wall of electro beats… and if I’ve heard Neil’s Metamorphosis-styled outro rap correctly I think there’s a passing reference to Cybermen. Anyway, let’s scroll on, shall we?
Sounding like a long-lost outtake from Bilingual, Happy People starts with a clappy, cantering house hook rather reminiscent of ‘90s New Order. “Happy people living in a sad world,” could be a riposte of the Brits jubilation over Brexit, all 51.89% of them. While the rest of the planet are thinking “WTF?!” Free movement, Tennant sings, is “the rhythm of our history, it’s the beat behind our lives.”
It’s a tidy little rave-up but may be too retro to be considered a single.
I Don’t Wanna describes a “Lonely boy/He has his head in the clouds/Sits at home with no-one around.” Fabulous bit of vocoder in the bridge and overall, there’s a slightly lo-fi menace that recalls 2006’s Integral and that’s most definitely no bad thing.
Ending on a happy couple note (and hinting at a positive outcome of the two divided by zeroisms of Will-o-the-Wisp), with its trancey, repetitive refrain of “We’re getting married, married, married”, Wedding In Berlin is a rather banal way to end an album. You can almost taste the cheese, though if you’ve ever wanted to hear a Macarena-type hook punctuated by blasts of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March then your carriage awaiteth. King’s Cross it ain’t.
Overall, a well produced, sonically textured and stylishly executed album, albeit one with almost half of the tracks rather more lukewarm than burning hot. With delicious irony, if there has to be a comparison, it’s closer in spirit to the erratic unpredictability of Lodger, the third in the Bowie/Eno triptych laid down just after they’d absconded from Berlin and were on their way to take Manhattan.
3 and a half out of five then.
BONUS: The cover artwork of Hotspot marks a departure from Mark Farrow’s graphic symbolism of Electric and Super. It reflects the murky sound they aimed for with the music, It’s a wild guess, but to me it looks like a deliberately blurred selfie of the Neil and Chris in a shiny and new contemporary art gallery. Lucky Kunst.
BONUS 2: If you go down to Cambridgeshire today you’re sure of a nice surprise. The above emporiums just happen to be neighbouring stores in Station Road, March. You’re welcome.