Will-o-the-wisp

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2020
Original album - Hotspot
Producer - Stuart Price
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

Neil has specifically compared this song, the energetic opening track of Hotspot, to "Two Divided by Zero," the first song on their debut album, Please. On that much earlier song, the narrator talks about hopping a train to escape his humdrum existence for the more exciting life of London. The narrator of "Will-o-the-wisp" also starts at a train station, in this case on the U1 line, part of the U-Bahn, the Berlin rapid transit rail system. Neil has noted that on the weekends the U1 is "like a party train," which he is pertinent to the song. The Boys go so far as to incorporate actual sampled sounds of the Berlin rail transit system into the recording.

In talking about this song, Neil revealed to interviewer Jan Kedves that his inspiration was English author Christopher Isherwood, who wrote in his diaries about a visit to Berlin after the Second World War, during which he recognizes a former lover from a distance. "Isherwood still has a crush on him, but the man does not recognize him—or is pretending not to." Whether we regard the narrator of the song as Isherwood himself or merely a character inspired by him, the "will-o-the-wisp" of the title is a man on the train who has caught his eye. It turns out he's a figure from the narrator's past whom he's now seeing "after many years."

I think, my, you may have changed
But you're such a handsome thing

He's also always been "a free spirit who came and went so much." (See my first annotation below for details about the underlying meaning and significance of "will-o-the-wisp.") He now suddenly becomes the object of the narrator's wonder and fantasy. The narrator refers to their past familiarity—

You were always such a free spirit
A bright-eyed eager chap
A will-o-the-wisp

—and then, as Isherwood himself does in his diary, speculates about the path this man's life may have taken in more recent years:

But maybe you've gone respectable
With a wife and job and all that
Working for the local government
And living in a rented flat?

Could he now be taking the U1 "party train" as a temporary respite from his humdrum life, "in search of love and laughter"?

The narrator then wistfully wonders whether this man would recognize him after all this time and "give [him] a smile for old time's sake." In the final variations of the chorus leading to the song's conclusion, he reveals a crucial detail about his feelings for this will-o-the-wisp: that he (the narrator) is "still longing for [his] touch." Whether he once was actually the narrator's lover (which is what I suspect) or only a friend for whom he harbored an unrequited passion is uncertain. Whatever the case, this man becomes once again a will-o-the-wisp as he disappears on the train: a fleeting, ephemeral vision who has, as always, come and gone.

With its chugging, driving rhythm—no doubt reflecting its train setting—and its unusual, almost free-form melody, "Will-o-the-wisp" proves an outstanding album opener.

Annotations

Mixes/versions

Officially released

List cross-references