He’s probably never lost much sleep about it, but there’s a certain sort of fascination in wondering whether or not the tuned in, acerbic Neil Tennant which edited Smash Hits so long ago would approve of the Neil Tennant of now.
In the early eighties the notion of global superstardom was in its infancy (Elvis aside), with the likes of Madonna and Michael Jackson a long way off from their later excesses. Given that pop is meant to be such a transitory phenomenon for both stars and audience, is it right that Tennant and the ageing first generation of musical royalty he came up with are still so first hand?
The answer, of course, is who cares? Pop after all has never been about objectivity, and anyway Tennant and his permanent foil Chris Lowe have long since thankfully become national treasures, black belts in personifying a tolerant, culturally open Britain many wished it could be.
Hotspot is the final work in a trilogy whose preceding chapters were 2013’s Electric and Super, released three years later. Each were produced in conjunction with Stuart Price and have marked a deliberate shift back to a more familiar electronic ground. This latest has also been touched by the duo visiting Berghain, the legendary Berlin club which on a weekend rarely sleeps.
The bohemian German city turns up more definitively on the album’s closer, the chunky mid-tempo stomper about a same-sex marriage Wedding In Berlin, but Hotspot’s mood is neither of techno hedonism nor Schlager, more instead of the disco melancholy that comes to many of a certain age and experience.
This doesn’t however equate to self-pity: despite Happy People’s dedication to its subjects ‘living in a sad world’, the song’s warmth – provided by some typically lavish programming and a spectacular key change – is a reminder against taking any of the apparent contradictions implied at face value.
Admirably there’s also still a willingness to take risks: if I Don’t Wanna deals tenderly with the contemporary issues of masculinity and lack of self-esteem, bringing Olly Alexander of young pretenders Years & Years into the tent (on Dreamland) could’ve ended up looking like an a cynical attempt at projecting youth by association, but on it both sorcerers and apprentice are suitably energised.
It’s a mood: whilst history might judge that there’s nothing here quite from their culturally significant top drawer, both opener Will-o—The-Wisp and Monkey Business bounce to the familiar snap of the duo in top form, a nonchalant rinsing for anybody daring to think otherwise.
To the Pet Shop Boys, the more things change the more they stay the same. The Neil Tennant of 1983 would probably make less of the stars of now and their condition of – as he’s described it – narcissistic misery than the grandiose personalities of history who flamed brightly before extinguishing themselves. Hotspot isn’t so much a riposte to that as an antidote, glitter in the grime and an open door through which anyone can walk.
There’s something more than just life in the old dogs yet.