Pet Shop Boys sounded futuristic when they broke onto the music scene in 1984 with their first single, “West End Girls.” The London duo used a relatively simple synthesizer, a Korg MS-10, to craft lush and sophisticated soundscapes, which singer Neil Tennant populated with the silky razor blade of his vocals. The duo elevated the synthesized, bubblegum pop of the ’80s to a more refined sonic plane that somehow simultaneously evoked ancient castles and futuristic space stations.
Pet Shop Boys’ 14th studio album, Hotspot, captures the duo creating the same ultra-modern-sounding pop in the very digital future their music seemed to predict. It’s easy to hear the duo’s influence in U2’s work following the Joshua Tree album, as well as in the music of bands like Coldplay and The Killers, all of whom incorporated the duo’s clean and affluent-sounding pop sensibilities into its musical stews.
Having found a musical recipe that works for them, Pet Shop Boys seem reluctant to abandon it. As a result, the songs on Hotspot sound very much like the songs on the duo’s other 13 records. This is not a criticism. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
On the album’s lead track, “Will-o-the-wisp,” Tennant’s instantly recognizable voice soars over the lush, symphonic wall of sound beneath. It’s classic Pet Shop Boys. The song conjures images of fancy people doing funny ’80s dances with cigarettes in their hands, but it also sounds completely contemporary, even futuristic. This is the temporal disjunction of Pet Shop Boys’ music; the listener is transported back to the hairspray and shoulder pads of the past, but is also shot forward to the sleek and digital not-too-distant future.
The songs on the album seem to conform to a basic structure: languid verses give way to forceful, anthemic choruses. The intro to “Dreamland,” which features contributions from another British synth-pop band, Years & Years, features keyboard stabs that evoke Europe’s “Final Countdown” before settling into a drum-machine-propelled groove. The groove retreats a bit to allow Tennant room to deliver the verses, then returns to buoy the song’s powerful chorus. On “You Are the One” a lush, symphonic intro with AutoTuned vocals sounds almost entirely computerized, as if the human operators have been entirely subsumed in the machine and are now little more than digital ghosts haunting the sterile soundscapes with supple emotion. The drum machines sound like snapping fingers.
The dreamy and vaguely psychedelic intro to “Hoping for a Miracle” gives way to instrumental passages that would serve perfectly as the soundtrack for an emotional montage on “Degrassi Junior High,” an ’80s Canadian teenage drama show. “Monkey Business” is a little funkier, but still resides firmly in the duo’s caucasian wheelhouse. “Only the Dark” evokes the Napoleon Dynamite slow-dance vibes of Alphaville’s “Forever Young.”
The one musical anomaly is the album’s first single. “Burning the Heather” features a strummed acoustic guitar rather than synthesized bleeps and bloops. This sparse, analog arrangement adds to the haunting mystery of Tennant’s voice, which is the only giveaway that the song is by the Pet Shop Boys.
There’s little doubt that Hotspot will transport graying Pet Shop Boys fans back to the fluorescent-colored Swatch days of their youth. The amazing thing is that if you play the new album for someone under the age of 30, they’re likely to imagine this music being made by a hip new band just breaking in 2020. That’s a testament to the new album as well as the band’s enduring musical vision.