[7 September 2010]
If anything is certain about Hurts, then it’s that they have more than earned their ‘cool’ status. In late 2009, “Wonderful Life” appeared without warning on YouTube, and became something of a cult hit. The video alone had an authentically Gothic, New Romantic feel to it, and the song had more in common with new wave synthpop of the early ‘80s—the essence of Joy Division, but the melodic sense of the Human League. However, when listening to the message, specifically that lyric: “Don’t let go. Never give up, it’s such a wonderful life,” it was clear this was a song with no typical New Romantic tale of melancholy. Despite the solemn faces of the band themselves, this was a song about hope and belief in love and, yes, life. Melodically haunting, “Wonderful Life” remains a quintessential example of a perfect pop song, even more intriguing because it came out of nowhere.
And yet for months, the band remained a mystery, frustratingly so, with only a YouTube account and sparse MySpace page to go by. And then all of a sudden, Hurts were signed, and along came “Better Than Love”, a much more commercial prospect than the dark and evocative “Wonderful Life”. Surrounded by the buzz of promotion, given a slot of the NME Radar tour, and now all of a sudden releasing a full length album, Hurts have certainly hit the big time, but in the process lost whatever mystery they had surrounding them a few months back. The question is: does the music still warrant the hype?
The truth is that it never warranted hype to begin with. Hurts write dramatic power ballads that the likes of Shakespeare’s Sister and Annie Lennox would have been fond of in the early ‘90s. They are hardly synthpop by the modern day ‘La Roux’ definition. They also have no indie credibility, they don’t sing in metaphor or try to accentuate their vocals; they sing simple lyrical messages of love, pain and yearning that most pop acts could not deliver sincerely if they tried. This is not ‘cool’ music by the definition of current trends, and is certainly not music that fits in alongside the chirpy indie and edgy electro pop that reigns the airways of late.
As a result, by my definition, Hurts have probably released the ‘coolest’ album of the year. Now their cult status has been stripped from them, Happiness could not be less pretentious if it tried. Singer Theo Hutchcraft’s voice is dramatic but elegant and carries each melody with a sense of purpose. His delivery is calm and composed, but he lets the words he has written speak for themselves; there’s no ambiguity in these words. “Stay” is jaw-droppingly arresting in its lyrical honesty and, as with “Wonderful Life”, perfectly formed and poignantly expressed, and in fact, there isn’t one track on the record that doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve.
Most of the tracks here follow the slow-paced confessional mould laid down by “Stay”, and although none quite reach the emotional peak of that track, “Illuminated” is epic and windswept and conjures up images of silent desperation in the pouring rain, and “Unspoken” is defiant and anthemic, backed by a sweeping string section rising to its final challenge. It might seem clichéd to use such metaphors, but Hurts’ candid delivery of its messages warrants a little creative description.
The uptempo synthpop of single “Better Than Love” is only retraced once, in the New Order-esque “Sunday” which is gleefully era-authentic and probably the nearest thing to a chart-friendly hit here. The two provide welcome break from the heavy emoting of the balladry, but despite the intense emotional baggage, such is the divine simplicity of the music on Happiness that sitting in a corner crying and punching the air for 48 minutes seems a perfectly viable option.
Of course, the downside of releasing such defiantly simplistic music is predictable: This will not be a popular and much liked record. Its detractors will label it repetitive, dull and melodramatic. Hurts’ fanbase will be dedicated, but select, and probably the same crowd that fell in love with “Wonderful Life” in the first place. But what unquestionably makes Hurts the coolest band of the moment is that they won’t change themselves for anyone. They have come so far commercially in the last 10 months, and yet lost none of the substance and power that they produce so beautifully in their music. Thus, because of this dedication to their art, no matter how the band does commercially from here on in, they will always have the last laugh. Although don’t expect them to crack a smile.