Hurts – Exile
When they burst onto the scene a few years ago, all fully formed with sharp synth-pop tunes and even sharper tailoring, Manchester duo Hurts seemed set to dominate the pop landscape. For some reason, though, that didn’t happen. Despite songs like ‘Better Than Love’, ‘Wonderful Life’ and ‘Stay’ being huge, perfectly constructed synth-pop cathedrals, Hurts still have some way to go to emulate the mainstream omniscience of their 80’s influences.
The reason for this could be the result of any number of factors. The duo’s icy, distant demeanour probably counts against them these days, with audiences preferring to ‘interact’ and ‘connect’ with their pop stars rather than awkwardly admire them from a distance. Also, Hurts’ brand of overly dramatic and sweeping synth-pop also seems a lot more dated today than it did just three years ago. But as ‘Miracle’, the lead single to Exile, has proved, when it’s done right, overly dramatic and sweeping synth-pop music can be brilliant. The problem with this second album, as you may have already guessed, is that Hurts just don’t do it right often enough.
Let’s start with the positives though, because Exile does have its moments. As well as the Depeche Mode-meets-Coldplay excellence of ‘Miracle’, ‘Sandman’ interestingly places a typically huge Hurts chorus in amongst a sparse and vulnerable backdrop, ‘Only You’ pulses and pulverises in all the right places and ‘The Road’ brings in a welcome slice of industrial electro-rock – hinting at a possible progression in terms of style for the duo.
The albums true highlights come elsewhere though, in the shape of ‘The Crow’ and album closer ‘Help’. The former is a dark and brooding ballad with echoes of Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’, and would be a brave but brilliant choice for a single. The latter builds on a gentle piano intro and Theo’s nursery-rhyme verses into a glorious monument to everything Hurts are capable of – namely life-affirming drama, excitement and emotion.
Despite all the positives though, Exile proves to be a frustrating listen. As the title suggests, it’s a lot darker than their debut Happiness, which could have resulted in an album bristling with menacing electro soundscapes in the same vein as Depeche Mode’s Violater. Instead, it lumbers under the burden of its dark tones and struggles to truly embrace its bleak outlook.
The title track is one of the biggest offenders, with Theo’s imagery of ‘vultures feeding’ and ‘watching the world burn’ sounding far too forced and awkward. ‘Blind’’s trite use of generic backing vocals clashes badly with the dark tone of Theo’s lyrics, ‘Cupid’ is an unrealised and unfocused attempt at a ‘big’ single, and the best you can say about ‘Somebody To Die For’ and ‘The Rope’ is that they are uninspired album filler.
Exile has enough positives about it to just about avoid the ‘second album syndrome’ tag. But it does raise a lot of questions about the future direction of Hurts. The pressure is now on for them to answer those questions emphatically.