The term “style over substance” has been used many times before in describing pop acts, but in the case of British synth-pop duo Hurts, it truly applies. Singer Theo Hutchcraft and musician Adam Anderson look like Hedi Slimane’s personal mannequins and bring a refreshing severity to pop’s aesthetic landscape. Although the music on second album Exile is at times more aligned with Hurts’ austere image than 2010’s Happiness, Hurts is still struggling with adding depth to its fairly conventional pop songs.
Some of the darkness Hurts brings to the table is certainly commendable, but musically Exile is –apart from a few novel touches – rarely memorable enough. In Hutchcraft’s hands, naming a pop song something fairly conventional, like “Blind”, means that song is going to involve Hutchcraft pleading to have his eyes torn out rather than see his former lover again. “Cupid” and “Sandman” take a slightly S&M approach to their titular characters, Hutchcraft beseeching of the former to let its arrows break the skin of an object of affection; the latter seems to be about death wishing insomnia away. Despite any deviousness, these songs come dressed in gaudy pop motifs: “O-way-o” choruses, slick synth lines, and vaguely hip-hoppish beats. “Sandman”, in a nicely sick twist, even features what sounds like a children’s chorus.
When Hurts allow for musical adventurousness, it often comes in the form of some poorly executed bubblegum-industrial edginess. “The Road” was picked to soundtrack a video teaser for Exile, and it is this song which best showcases what the album could have been. On one hand, it’s always nice to see a pop act trying to slip some literacy into the mainstream (although nothing can touch the Normal’s “Warm Leatherette” as far as references to J.G. Ballard’s Crash go, but nice job anyway). Additionally, the production on the harder musical moments sometimes sounds far murkier than Exile’s slicker, more conventional moments in a way that is galling; songs are mixed in a way that robs any hair-raising moments of potential.
The album’s more subdued moments fare better. Although it’s musically a little too close to Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Games” to be truly brilliant, the lyrical conceit of “The Crow” is bound to set some dark hearts a-flutter, and is possibly a genuinely new move as far as comparing women to things in pop music goes. Elton John contributes some piano-playing on the very Elton John-sounding “Help,” but the song is still lovely enough in its own right to keep from seeming too much like pure homage.
Mostly, however, Exile isn’t as intriguing as it may think it is. Hutchcraft and Anderson offer up some decent ideas, but too often Hurts’ music doesn’t sound far enough removed from whatever else is in the Top 40 on any given week. No matter how many dark subjects are nested throughout, too often the music on Exile falls back into the same old tricks of bells-and-whistles pop choruses and obvious hooks. The band is, in a very small way, doing a service to the pop landscape by bringing a little danger into play; it just might be good to check back when this duo gets better at executing it.