Hurts – Exile

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7.5/10

We’ve had to wait three years (how could they?) for Hurts‘ second delivery. Their first album, 2010′s Happiness, was once of the most intense explosions of emotion in recent years – it was slick, oft-morose, fabulously melodramatic synth-pop, adorned with sharp references to the late ’80s and urban life. Basically, it was a stellar debut.

Then, towards the end of 2012, we were able to glimpse snippets from their second effort; ‘Miracle‘ was once such cut. It heralded a markedly different direction for the dapper-but-dour Northern lads, with some critics noting Coldplay as a comparison, which is rarely a compliment. The fact is, it’s an enormous song, signalling a glitzy path for Theo (Hutchcraft, vocals) and Adam (Anderson, synthy bits), doused in darkness and pop-noir glamour.

Exile apparently hit hiccoughs in early development, as the band were “too happy to write”. For an outfit known for their grim outlook, that was clearly a problem. But somewhere, everything must’ve gone wrong for them, as we find ourselves now on the cusp on album numero dos. It’s still very much synth-pop, but there are tinges of R’n'B and an elegant pop embrace, even more so than before. This LP is a self-assured step away from what they’ve done previously – it’s a turn to the dark side. If viewed as part of an anthology, these two records are perhaps reflections on dealing with grief – they succeed in essence becoming concept albums, surrounding one stage of the grieving process. Happiness, ironically, is depression; Exile is rage.

The approach towards instrumentation has lurched forth from their previous endeavours. ‘Sandman‘ incorporates the kind of murky, dinge-addled whistling Rick Ross would grunt heartily at. It’s deliriously overcooked, “I’ll show no mercy until the lights go out” being one chest-pumping shot at bravado. Infant choirs loom over the track, dousing the flame of Hutchcraft. It sounds more like the backing track to something by Kanye West than a single from Hurts, which it utterly brilliant. It’s hammy, but it’s a strident advance on stadiums. They’re confident pomp-popstars, looking down the barrel at headline slots – and with a record like this, they’ll come. It’s not a subtle record by any means, but when have we ever had – or wanted – subtle from Hurts?

‘Somebody To Die For’ gives us ’60s strings, skittish Linkin Park percussion and Sum 41 guitars. It shouldn’t work, and for probably a lot of people it won’t, but for those who can look past the Meatloafy aspects, it’ll be a favourite. ‘Cupid’ grinds toward Trent Reznor, attempting to take his industrial crown. This is more like Nine Inch Nails than Nine Inch Nails will be on their reunion; hoarse-whispered tales of paranoia and threatening, churning guitars that slide between grime synths like Bambi on ice are ominously present. ‘Mercy’ is Stilton. It’s as cheesy as they come, but it’s mature, refined even, with rich veins of emotional heft. As long as you don’t take it too seriously – and maybe avoid the trance synths edging into the frame – it’s wonderful. Actually, that’s probably a good philosophy for the looking at Hurts in general.

Exile careens towards the mainstream and is brimming with Top 40 hooks. They’re a pair with sights on pop megastardom – they’ve never claimed to be anything but (note that Fame Academy alumnus David bloody Sneddon wrote three songs on their debut). For those with problems about their integrity: move along. Hurts aren’t, and never have been, something to take 100% seriously. It’s swooning drama of the highest calibre, the kind of dark-pop that Spandau Ballet and Depeche Mode found fame with (yes, there’s still that New Romantic/Goth element floating about). If you’re able to look past the campy facade and accept that this is purely a record of glimmering pop, it’ll be something you’ll cherish. If you can’t hack this reveal, maybe it’s time to lighten up, because Exile is great.

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