Album Review — Dua Lipa’s ‘Future Nostalgia’

Dua Lipa hasn’t really been on my radar up until this point. Her debut self-titled album didn’t catch my attention. But the lead single for her second album did get my attention and I’ve quietly been hopeful about it. After listening to her second album Future Nostalgia quite thoroughly, I’m beyond hopeful. I’m ecstatic, as this is the kind of pop music that excites me with it’s bold sounds that pay homage to the past while sounding quite fresh and modern.

The album’s title track leads off, greeting with an ominous “future” echoed in the background that frequently interplays throughout the song. Fueled by an infectious electro-pop sound that gives a glimpse of what’s to come in the album, the song feels like Dua Lipa reintroducing herself to everybody, as she proclaims in the chorus: “I know you’re dying trying to figure me out/My name’s on the tip of your tongue, keep running your mouth/You want the recipe but can’t handle my sound.” The synth part in the bridge by Jeff Bhasker really gives it a cool sound to close out on too.

The album’s lead single and what brought this album to my attention, “Don’t Start Now,” is about a woman coming to realize she’s a better and stronger person for getting over her breakup with her ex. She realized how toxic he was and has slammed the door shut on the relationship. It’s a fist-pumping anthem that excellently utilizes various violins to create a classy, yet spacey sound. And of course it did what a lead single should do. “Cool” is about losing yourself to love and seeing something more beyond sexual chemistry. This song screams summer anthem and not just because it references the season, but more than anything the overall vibe puts me in mind of driving down a beach highway at night with the streetlights lit up with it’s smooth, futuristic sounds.

“Physical” is a straight-up banger that hooked me from the first moment I heard it. The combination of tight bass, plenty of synthesizers and well utilized drums creates a frenetic, disco meets sci-fi sound that makes it impossible not to want to dance to. And Lipa delivers a vocal performance with the kind of ferocious charisma that will have you easily singing along. This song has every element I want in a pop song: fun hooks, infectious sound and great vocals. “Levitating” is another exciting love song with good hooks. This song definitely has more disco influences and dare I say some 90s pop influences too. The talk box is beautifully utilized, as it gives the chorus more gravitas.

“Pretty Please” is about missing your love and finding instant relief once you’re in their arms. Once again I have to praise the production aspects, as a groovy, slightly understated bass line drives the rhythm of the song and what I love about it is how it shows you don’t have to have a “wall of sound” to create a big feel. Too many pop artists try to shove so many instruments into their sound to create an “epic” sound, but I’m glad to see Ian Kirkpatrick and Juan Ariza recognized how a simple approach is all that was needed to give this song a punch. “Hallucinate” is another perfect pop song in the same vein as “Physical.” On a 1-10 scale of danceability, it’s a 20 and Lipa delivers the hook with the amount of emotion needed to convey the desperate, intoxicating love being explored in the song. The sound is completely in synch with what feels like an out of control love.

Lipa explores overcoming doubt and insecurity on “Love Again.” It can be easy to overlook how much depth is in the songwriting here, as Lipa goes into many details about how she was previously in the state of never believing she would find love and the storm of emotions she once experienced before finding the love of her life. It’s another song too that nails the futuristic disco sound and the big hero for me is the violin play by Drew Jurecka (who also did the great violin work on “Physical”). It gives the song an appropriately triumphant and resilient feel, while also fueling the catchy disco sound too. “Break My Heart” is about falling for a heartbreaker, enjoying the rush of falling in love and dreading what feels like the inevitable falling out. The drums and the tambourines do a great job of creating that bouncy, disco sound. And I know I keep praising this, but I have to point out that it’s essentially a different team of producers on each song. So it’s kind of incredible how cohesive this album sounds.

Unfortunately “Good in Bed” is a complete mess, even though it does something incredible: it brought universal agreement amongst critics, in that essentially every critic says it’s the worst song on the album, and universal agreement is quite rare these days. The choppy cadence and the clunky lyrics about sex just makes this a bizarre song within the context of the rest of the album, as it just doesn’t fit in any way. Closing song “Boys Will Be Boys” doesn’t really fit the theme of the album either, although at least it’s good and it has a great message. It’s about how boys and young men are given a pass for dangerous behavior that increasingly leads to predatory and violent action towards women, often with the casual phrase “boys will be boys.” All the while girls are expected to be women and forced to adapt to these social double standards. It’s a powerful and meaningful way to bring a message that all should take to heart.

Dua Lipa delivers an absolutely fantastic album in Future Nostalgia. It has the elements I want to hear in a pop album and it comes oh so close to be an album of the year contender. Despite one slip-up, this album delivers everything else perfectly. It encapsulates disco, electro pop and dance music with the kind of aplomb and grace I would expect out of Carly Rae Jepsen, while at the same time delivering incredibly infectious hooks and vocal performances that will stick with you long after listening. This is one of the best pop albums you’ll hear in 2020.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review — Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Hotspot’

The Pet Shop Boys have been around for decades and when it comes to this duo you know exactly what kind of music you’re going to get: catchy synth pop. It’s no different on the 14th album from Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. The in-your-face “Will-o-the-wisp” opens the album with it’s pulsing synths. The song is about coming across someone from the past you considered a will-o-the-wisp (an unobtainable person that you feel compelled to pursue), but has now become a boring and normal person. Yet despite this new reality, the old allure still remains. It tells a good story and I guarantee you will have the hook of this song stuck in your head (in a good way of course).

“You are the one” is a dreamy love song with satisfying lo-fi synths that make you feel like you’re floating in the clouds. I imagine this song will be a love it or hate it type, as I can see how some might find the soft sound to be a bit boring and dragging. Personally I find it relaxing and soothing. The duo gets back to that louder sound on “Happy people.” It’s sound is pure 80s, with the thin synths, hints of snare drum crashing throughout and thumping bass. And I love it, as this is a fist-pumping anthem that puts a smile on my face. The Pet Shops Boys go for an even bigger and bolder sound on “Dreamland.” With surrealistic lyrics about finding solace and comfort in dreams and the grand horns throughout, this song is just fantastic. It’s so much fun to dance to and is easily my top moment on Hotspot.

“Hoping for a miracle” is about the lifelong struggle one can go through to find acceptance and success. While I applaud the theme being explored, I find this song is too meandering for my taste, as it really never goes anywhere in terms of the theme or the sound, which is kind of meh considering the expectations one has with the Pet Shop Boys. “I don’t wanna” is essentially an introvert’s anthem, as it’s about not wanting to go out to the club and be around people. By the end the introvert finds his courage and heads out into the night. I like this hopeful message the song ultimately ends up at. I also enjoy the sound and feel of this song a lot more, as the pounding drum loops and skipping synths gives it a catchy and smooth melody.

“Monkey business” is a funky, heavily disco-influenced track about going out on the town to find “monkey business” (I think you can figure this out). It’s a simple and fun song that is unsurprisingly great for dancing. “Only the dark” is right along the lines of “Hoping for a miracle” for me. It’s too slow, boring and has nothing interesting to say. “Burning the heather” is a song that just outright confused me upon first listen with it’s reflective and ambiguous lyrics. But then I looked up what it means to burn the heather: it’s a common shrub in Europe that has to be periodically burned to help regenerate it, often in the fall. As for the rest of the song, it seems to be about a man who is misunderstood. Personally I find the song to be too complicated to enjoy and quite frankly doesn’t seem to fit the rest of the album.

The album closes with “Wedding in Berlin,” another song that quite frankly sticks out like a sore thumb with the rest of the album. It’s a mashup of electro-dance beats and the traditional wedding march, essentially a modern take on the latter. Most of the song consists of “We’re getting married” being repeated over and over. If you’re getting married and you want it to also feel like the club, this is your song. For the rest, it’s a neat listen once or twice and after that I have no desire to hear it again. It just comes off as a novelty song.

The highs the Pet Shop Boys deliver on Hotspot are really fun and are definitely memorable, while the lows are completely forgettable. It’s a bit of a roller coaster listen, but if you’re a fan of synth pop it’s worth listening to it a few times and picking out your favorite songs to go back to. But the album taken as a whole is just decent and leaves more consistency and cohesiveness to be desired.

Grade: 6/10