Hurts might have lost their little dark heart, but Surrender is still a rapturous collection of gospel-tinged pop pleasures.
A quick glance at Richard Mosse’s striking infrared cover art, and it’s clear that Surrender will be anything but a typical Hurts outing. Given that the English synthpop duo’s previous efforts weren't exactly defined by their sunlit optimism, the ebullient imagery here might be a bit disconcerting to some. Clad in black couture suits and wandering through a rose-colored field, Theo Hutchcraft and Adam Anderson look like fashionable undertakers or stylish hitmen who have somehow stepped out of a black and white film noir and into a technicolor-dipped daydream. Compared to Mosse’s exhibition The Enclave, which highlights the disturbing nature of war in lurid lavender, hot pink and crimson, this surreal photograph is positively joyous. In a way, the field simply reflects Hurts’ gradual progression towards a more colorized sound, one they’ve always hinted at on previous recordings.
Dour and polarizing, their sophomore set Exile tested the fidelity of their fanbase with its krautrock, hip-hop and industrial influences, and the style-defying trend continues with Surrender. Those who prefer their Hurts firmly entrenched in a deep, brooding melancholy, may find themselves horrified to hear how chart-friendly the duo’s latest effort is. Clearly they haven’t been paying attention over the years. The transition was inevitable considering the success of their number-one, EDM-inflected hit “Under Control”, a collaboration with Calvin Harris and Alesso. In sacrificing part of their identity for something altogether mainstream, they might have lost their little dark heart, but Surrender is still a rapturous collection of gospel-tinged, guilty pop pleasures.
Australian-born teacher and Joni Mitchell mentor Arthur Kratzmann once told the Canadian legend, “If you can paint with a brush, you can paint with words.” Well, not every songwriter is a gifted wordsmith and Hutchcraft has never been one to paint a particularly breathtaking lyric. In the unintentionally hilarious “Wish” he embraces saccharine-laced clichés singing, I fell head over heels without warning…I wish I could turn back the time and tell you what I realize now. Theo, Cher just called to say you’re late to the game. She already mined that territory back in ’89.
Surrender commences with the sound of female gospel singers wailing to a euphoric crescendo. Unexpected though it might be as an opening number, it sets the bar for everything else that follows early on. Listening to the album’s chamber pop single “Some Kind of Heaven” one can’t help but notice that the somber atmosphere, so prominent on past records, has all but lifted entirely. From the Daft Punk-esque vocoder effects and acoustic guitars on the stomping track “Why”, to the slinky, Princely, funk-injected “Lights”, or the spinning “Kaleidoscope”, the days of operatic elegance found on early songs such as “Silver Lining”, appear to have vanished. This is no more apparent than on the bombastic Ibiza banger “Nothing Will Be Bigger Than Us”. Like Hurts jacked up on steroids, Hutchcraft and Anderson are aiming for massive crossover appeal here and somehow pull the trick off marvelously.
With its dolorous atmosphere, heaving synths and concussive baseline, “Rolling Stone” proves to be the quintessential Hurts track on Surrender. Sadly it’s accompanied by cringeworthy lyrics that meld Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with some overwrought tale of a broken young woman in eastern Europe. When reading a line such as, "In Belarus she was a vespertine / She danced the go-go for the bourgeoisie", it’s hard to keep a straight face and not be tempted to skip ahead to the next selection. Regardless of the gauche lyrical content, Hurt’s glitter-bombed melodies are often so irresistibly hummable that Hutchcraft’s hackneyed tales become inconsequential.
The soaring retro-ballad “Wings”, with it’s eye-rolling, comical couplets, describes a winged woman of all things. Harkening back to their debut Happiness with a sweeping chorus not unlike early single “Stay”, the song’s preposterous imagery is so heavy-handed, it almost shoots this harpy out of the sky. Seventh track “Slow” is quite possibly the sultriest composition the two have ever recorded. Accompanied by distorted voices that elicit thoughts of Jocelyn Pook’s darkly erotic score for Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut ,Theo sings, "I just want to love you, I just want to hold you close / What you’re doing here is murder, when you whip your body slow". It strikes the perfect balance between the shadowy Hurts of old and their latest incarnation.
If only the album had ended before “Wish”. The bonus tracks that follow that maudlin closer and sully the tail end of record are about as interesting as watching vegetables rot slowly. The less said about the puzzling “Policewoman” the better, but those lyrics are so ridiculous they must be mentioned: “I see those vandals running, my iron maiden’s coming / She whips her nightstick, but my heart shines red and blue". One can only imagine what S&M-fueled, role-playing night inspired that.
Ignoring the existence of the duo’s past two albums, it often feels like Surrender is a greatest hits collection, with a few seriously misguided choices thrown in to boost record sales. The grandiloquence of it all might send longtime fans screaming for the hills, but there’s nothing on the album to suggest that Hurts have suddenly become a different entity altogether. By enlisting the talents of Stuart Price (Madonna, The Killers) and Ariel Rechtshaid (Vampire Weekend, Haim) to compliment the production work of longtime collaborator Jonas Quant, Hurts have effectively expanded their pop palate and embraced an optimistic outlook. Whether that proves to be financially fruitful for the Mancunian duo, only time will tell. Filler aside, there is enough arresting material here to warrant attention beyond their massive cult following in Europe. In a bid for global domination, Surrender just might be the album to catapult Hurts into the mainstream consciousness. If only Theo’s words were as riveting as his voice.