Heading into their fifth decade, the electro-pop duo of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe continue to be as innovative and original as they were on their debut Please, back in 1984. At this juncture it is important to note that I am not an unbiased reviewer. I have been a PSB fan since the mid-eighties and own everything that they have ever released, although, of course, some records have engaged me more than others. My favourite album (and one which would fit into my top ten album list of all time) is Behaviour from 1991, while releases such as Nightlife, Release, Disco 2 or Elysium —which sounds very much like a contractual obligation album— barely crossed my radar. So I am used to being either elated or disappointed by the band’s different directions over the decades.
Where does Hotspot fit on that spectrum? First, a few facts: this is PSB's third release on their own x2 label since leaving Parlophone in 2013, and like the previous two albums (2013's Electric and 2016's Super) it has been recorded with producer Stuart Price, mostly in Berlin’s legendary Hansa Studios. The band’s own website described Hotspot as the last in a trilogy of albums with Price, which put me in mind of another famous musician who had his own 'Berlin' trilogy (and was also a Pet Shop Boys collaborator). This, astonishingly, is the band’s fourteenth studio album, with ten tracks clocking in at just under forty-five minutes altogether. Familiar themes run through the record, but there are also plenty of contemporary touches and approaches that keep the sound fresh and vital. Contemporary pop group Years and Years guest on the single Dreamland, a wonderfully pulsating piece of EDM/pop that brings to mind classic PSB singles like Domino Dancing, Was It Worth It? or indeed the current single Monkey Business, which initially left me cold despite its constant rotation on Radio 2. Hearing the track in the context of the album’s overall theme and style, however, I can see that fits in perfectly, its evocation of debauchery and excess providing the perfect contrast to the preceding I Don't Wanna with its tale of a lonely introvert who doesn’t want to go out anywhere (maybe a distant relation to the protagonist of Left to my Own Devices).
The record opens with what will probably become a classic PSB tune, Will o’ the wisp. This is not an homage to an eighties kids’ TV show, but another character study, this time of a lost party animal (again with shades of DJ Culture or Being Boring). There is something uniquely English about Neil Tennant’s use of language and observational songwriting, which shine again on Hoping for a Miracle, about somebody who is always trying to be the next big thing and never quite making it. It’s important to note that Tennant is never a cruel songwriter: all his character observations are coming from a place of either sympathy or kindness, not cynicism.
The entire album has been programmed as a unity and not just a playlist; the songs complement each other beautifully. It's difficult amongst this embarrassment of riches to choose one track as a standout, but for me it's the wistful, almost folk tune Burning the Heather, with some wonderful guitar work by Bernard Butler. With its intimate lyrics, it’s the kind of song that brings to mind a remote pub, a long winter evening, a stranger and a roaring fire. It contains such warmth and humanity that it is probably one of PSB's best tracks from the last twenty years. In raucous counterpoint, they end with the absolutely bonkers Wedding in Berlin, which, with its pulsating EDM beats and sounds and its integration of the Wedding March, really shouldn’t work at all —yet it closes the album with a playful, subversive wink.
Neil Tennant is sixty-five and Chris Lowe is sixty, and although it is hard to imagine them still in tune with the pulse of a scene that they have dominated since the early eighties, there's a reason why they are the most successful duo in the history of pop music. The fact is that they are still on top of their game, and Hotspot continues the musical renaissance that Electric heralded. It seems that the move away from Parlophone has given them more musical freedom. PSB are as relevant now as they ever were, and they head into the roaring twenties in rude health.
Gozer Goodspeed Running with the Outliers
Given that I am involved in a number of different music scenes as a critic, it’s not unusual for me to receive contact requests from artists over the internet. One such message was from Plymouth-based singer songwriter Gozer Goodspeed, whose latest album, Running with the Outliers, was released towards the end of last year. Right from the get-go this release is full of verve and panache, combining Goodspeed’s unique musical vision with a really tight and talented studio band (Gozer on vocals and guitar, Matthew Avery on bass, Mike Roberts on drums, and Chris Love on keyboards/pianos/production), on a mixture of folk, blues, indie and even sneaky elements of prog which lasts for approximately forty minutes.
The opening title track pulls the listener in with a rollicking chorus and some mighty fine observational lyrics. Featuring a cast of misfits and outcasts, Gambler’s Last Day is a slice of prime (West) Country music, with its driving dirty blues guitar riff, well-observed character studies and brilliant lyrics, sounding like Show of Hands produced by Tom Petty. The brilliant Pumas and Neon Signs is a jagged anthem with some sublime guitar work throughout, and here it is particularly evident that the band wanted to capture a sound as close to live as possible. The insistent, driving rhythm, wall of sound, and lyrical visions reminded me of the indie summer of 1997. This is the sort of tune —in fact, the sort of album— that should be belted through your car windows on a drive to the coast on a warm day, just because you can.
Overall, despite some darker tales of misfits and addicts (such as on the brilliant If Not Yourself, Who Do You Think Will Save You?) the album’s dominant theme is one of optimism, redemption, and freedom. My favourite cut is the wistful and haunting King Point Marina. With guitar work and vocals that evoke a late-night blues club, it is one of the stand-out tracks of last year for me: everything just gels, and it's beautiful. February Almost Broke Me is a foot-stomping, hard-rocking track, perfect for an audience singalong. This is the Pathway is the closing track on the album, and rounds it off in style: an excellent blues rocker with impassioned vocals from Gozer. This album’s raw and honest sound and intimate recording style are perfect for its finely-crafted, well-observed songs brimming over with beauty, heart, and passion.
This is a phenomenal debut album. Remember the name Gozer Goodspeed — you'll be seeing and hearing a whole lot more from him.--James R. Turner