Album Review: HURTS – ‘Happiness’

Anyone lucky enough to get an interview with this charming, Mancunian duo would have to only commend their attention to detail, plus have an extensive back-knowledge of European music, for, thanks the unavoidable onslaught of “80’s-styled pop stars”, you could easily mistake HURTS for a pair of Pet Shop Boys wannabes, with a helping of Depeche Mode circa. ‘Black Celebration’ (1986), and a healthy dollop of Tears For Fears for good measure.


Of course, the similarities between HURTS and the above 80’s synth-pop veterans is as easy to spot as a moose on a motorway, but HURTS rather claim they are mainly influenced by an early-90’s Italian genre called “Disco lento”, literally translating as “slow disco”, a genre that could be defined to a tee with Theo Hutchcraft’s words: “heavy, emotional, and atmospheric love songs”, and that is exactly what can be found on ‘Happiness’, the long-awaited début album from the duo, which comprises of Hutchcraft – who would be the Niel Tennant of the pair – on vocals; he employs the smart dress, with a grey suit and a slicked-back, well-oiled head of hair; a small ear-piercing lending a lilt of Italian Mafia about him, and Adam Anderson – the Chris Lowe – who provides the music for Theo; he employs the more casual dress, takes a back seat for the videos and live performances, and rarely talks… but at least we can see his eyes.


It’s also interesting to note they’ve extended this idea into the album artwork: with Theo sat forward with his hands on the table and Adam leaning back against his chair; just another testament to prove they aren;t your average “80’s-styled” wannabes. It’s also pleasng to note that Theo never refers to his lovers as “girls” or “shawdies”, rather, a “lady”… Ooer! How sweet…


That said, I’d say out of all the words in the English dictionary, ‘Happiness’ is the most inappropriate title for their album: rarely do we see a tempo over 120bpm (only twice, actually) and that would be an awful drag for someone in the pop mainstream like Ke$ha or Katy Perry… in fact, not even Lady GaGa could pull it off; HURTS clearly have more than merry, summery pop on their minds, crafting an album that has probably two obvious singles, one of which has already been released (and charted at a criminally underappreciated #50 due to no promotion). HURTS have decided enough is enough with the formulaic, dry, lifeless, “electro-pop” raiding the charts, and the horrid over-exposure of talentless X Factor-dependants and “success stories” like Olly Murs, Diana Vickers, Leona Lewis et al.


HURTS have clearly brushed away the opportunity to take the fastrack to mainstream and piggy back off other people’s success by emulating their style and sound; they’ve cut their own niche in the industry and have their own stamp on everything they do. It’s a perilous choice because in a world where the charts are gradually turning staler than week-old bread; where literally anyone can get a #1 with a bit of airplay, going the non-commercial route can often mean you’re over-looked when really, you should be acclaimed.


But, whilst many claim them to be able to have “walked straight off the set of a 1985 Top Of The Pops show”, there’s actually quite a bit of modern to them aswell. They’re not far off the pompousness of Muse (they go so far as to employ their own opera singer), and whilst most of the album is dark-themed, the lighter tracks, particularly ‘Better Than Love’, have slight tinges of the noughties’ dance/rave music and even the Muse-tinged ‘Unspoken’ has a much welcomed sense of avant garde to it.


HURTS are all about style, from Theo’s ear-piercing to their restricted movements when they perform, every detail is thought about carefully, sometimes coming across as over-pretentious, but if you’re worried about style over substance, there’s no need, because what HURTS have provided here is an non-commercial album full of “Disco lento”, with goose-pimple moments a-plenty. Whether it’s the stormy, self-loathing and emotionally unstable ‘Evelyn’ or the upbeat, Eurythmics-esque, must-be-a-single quality of ‘Sunday’, they rarely trip up on the 11-track set.



01. ‘Silver Lining’ (5.0 STARS)


If you’re expecting a dubstep track from the intro, you’ll disappointed, as it soon dies away and you’re left with a tribal beat and a pleasant piano riff. Theo’s vocals enter seamlessly, quickly showing off his vocal capacity and ability to sound at home amongst a haunting, atmospheric production. HURTS like to play with volume on many a track on this album; one moment Theo is accompanied by a huge production and it instantly dies away before returning louder and boasting even more attention to detail.


That’s what makes HURTS stand out – their attention to detail, and their ability to make you feel when you listen to the music, particularly in the musical sections they’re so fond of, and as far as album openers go, ‘Silver Lining’ is a perfect taster for what is yet to come. Near-hypnotic, the chorus arrives oh-so-softly yet manages to pack a punch that could render you into hot-under-the-collar mode with it’s stirring lyrics.



02. ‘Wonderful Life’ (5.0 STARS)


The second trailer single for ‘Happiness’, and it does present a problem, ‘Wonderful Life’ very much and emotionally raging epic of a track that most certainly fits this idea of disco lento, but it’s not until the music section with Theo’s dulcet “Ooh”s over the top that make this song much better. It’s a near-numinous experience listening to this track, from the moment the solo saxophone takes it’s mourning journey over the shimmering synths and tribal beats with Theo snuggly by it’s side, the song elevates itself to the kind of soundtrack you’d expect to accompany some kind of highly religious experience.


Inspired the time Theo and Adam spent on the dole, and the times they felt like giving up music, ‘Wonderful Life’ does really over-do it, for it’s essentially about a suicidal man, but in some way, it’s lyrically charming and the way every lyric slides off Theo’s tongue like pure honey offers a smooth contrasts to the militant drums. It may over-do it; it may be slightly depressing, but at times during this track, it feels like HURTS are really connecting with you.



03. ‘Blood, Tears & Gold’ (4.5 STARS)


The first actual ballad on the album, by which I mean it’s sung to a person about the love Theo and this unknown missus has shared, and it’s a cold synth-pop gem that you can imagine being the one that all the fans will sing back to the duo; the one the fans will wave their hands in the air in slow unison to, with it’s slow, memorable chorus and bittersweet lyrics – “When love goes cold/Blood, tears and gold/Won’t make it any better”.


This song continues the streak of clever lyrics, beautiful performance, but the production doesn’t give that instant rush you get from the previous two tracks. That said, this song affects you in a different way, and seems to make even people who have no reason to relate to this song a bit weepy.


 


04. ‘Sunday’ (5.0 STARS) 


Track 4. And it’s quite a transition from what we’ve heard from HURTS so far. Not in the genre department: still plenty of synths, strings, pounding piano, this transition is in the tempo department, for amongst the slow, mid-tempo ballads of ‘Blood, Tears & Gold’, and ‘Stay’, ‘Sunday’ is quite happy to steam along at 120bpm. Opening the what sounds like a mechanical duck stuck in a chimney, it soon dies away and a rapidly pulsing bassline comes in, making proceedings far more danceable and dare I say it, catchy.


The lyrics of course, don’t stray from the mournful type we’ve seen before, “The lover-less nights, they seem so long/I know that I’ll hold you some day/Until you come back where you belong/It’s just another lonely Sunday”, which Theo finally giving the vocals a good bit of welly, and sounding quite like Brandon Flowers while he does it. When the vocals are stacked up against when of the best musical sections on the album, complete with buzzing synths, energetic strings and a ‘Sweet Dreams’-esque post-chorus riff, the song is begging to be released. It has more hooks than any other song on the album and is a refreshing (albeit much-needed) change from the heavy duty ballads so far.



TRACK OF THE ALBUM!


05. ‘Stay’ (5.0 STARS)


‘Stay’ is a song that sees HURTS drops the overly artistic lyrics, and put on a lyrical display that many can relate to – “We say goodbye in the pouring rain/And I break down as you walk away”, and thanks to the gospel choir-assisted chorus, it provides an emotional blow to the head, sticking it’s poignant chorus into your mind.


The song crescendos slowly as it moves along, as do most HURTS tracks, and by the middle-eight, you can hear Adam’s synth backing bubbling furiously underneath Theo’s reserved vocals, before erupting into a pleading chorus repeat with so many things going on it should feel like a musical junkyard, but Adam’s clever production make it a neatly-finished musical treat as well as a heartfelt ode to a lost lover.



06. ‘Illuminated’ (5.0 STARS)


“Suddenly my eyes are opened/Everything comes into focus”, yep, the pompous lyrics are back, and not a minute too soon, for as soon as you strain your ears to hear the opening “Ooh” and recurring piano chord, ‘Illuminated’ is a hauntingly powerful song, complete with HURTS’ opera singer backing up Theo in the catchier “We are/We are/Blinded” post-chorus.


It’s monumental, the song couldn’t sound bigger or more overblown unless Theo was standing atop a snow-covered mountain, ripping his top off and screaming the lyrics into the blizzard wind. He sounds like he’s singing underwater at one point, then singing in oh-so-soft falsetto, and then wailing the post-chorus refrain like he’s a mile away and still being heard, and the live version of this song is even better.


SPECIAL MENTION



07. ‘Evelyn’ (5.0 STARS)


The drums on this track! OH MY GOD. It sounds like the angered Gods of War, Sea AND Sky are riding chariots of fire through a maelstrom of elation, fear, sound, and pain, at exactly the same point the Four Horses have broken free and Pandora’s box just flew open at the sound of the doors to Hell being thrown ajar. “Stay with me, Evelyn” Theo sings mournfully, backed up by a thousand pounding drums. It’s not the kind of song you play quietly; this is a song to play as loud as you can.


Again, HURTS are making you feel the music, the production giving you those goose-bump moments and that uplifting feeling that you’re ten feet tall. You get a strange feeling of numinous overcoming when those drums kick in… very weird sensation indeed.



08. ‘Better Than Love’ (5.0 STARS)


Theo takes on a much deeper, commanding tone with this song, from the very outset, his vocals are loud, domineering and packed with a forceful punch, with a single synth bubbling underneath him, he breaks into a brilliant pop chorus, with some Erasure/Soft Cell-esque synthesisers before any expectation of a ballad are blown out of the water as the song turn into an absolute stomper the Pet Shop Boys would be proud of releasing.


So much attention to detail has been taken with this, from the dark piano chords to the rolling synths patterns in the chorus, it must’ve taken ages to perfect that, as the finished result is one of the album’s clear standouts.


As for the lyrics, they follow Niel Tennant’s flamboyant “it hardly makes sense but it’s still amazing” style of lyricism with Theo singing similarly with helping of religion thrown on top “Every minute more brings you closer to God/And you see nothing but the red light”.


With a retro feel combined with a tinge of modern dance music, this would be a perfect choice for a re-release and with a bit of promotion, could have people talking about HURTS a lot more.



09. ‘Devotion’ (featuring Kylie Minogue) (5.0 STARS)


Opening to another mournful intro – this time a slow, electronic accordion – ‘Devotion’ soon develops into a drum loop reminiscent Depechemode. Theo begins to sing for the verse, what must be the best lyric on the album – “Inside the heart of every man/There is a lust you understand/And I’m just the same”, only it’s sung with a sense of regret, self-hatred, etc.


Kylie join him in the chorus, giving a great vocal performance and they both sing “Devotion, save me now/I don’t wanna stray from the hallowed ground”, and, with the additional, stirring, ‘hot flush’ moments you get in other one of HURTS’ great musical sections, this is a stellar performance from both singers; a perfect head-on collision of a ballad between two people caught in the misery of a sour love.



10. ‘Unspoken’ (4.0 STARS)


As I’ve said before, this song could’ve come straight off one of Muse’s later albums, as well as it being the only song on the album that sounds like it was influenced by the 80’s. Subtle influences heard in the lyrics “Forget about this town” give it a sense of 80’s stylistic, realistic words of devotion. On top of that, it’s sounds like a proper 80’s power-ballad, with it’s chiming piano refrain and “Leave it unspoken” refrain, begging a counterpart to refrain from talking of a certain something we never find out.


With swirling strings, a pulsing beat and Theo’s near-catatonic singing, it’s as dramatic as the rest of the album, but it’s nowhere near as catchy or as moving, relying mostly on it’s piano refrain, although the closing lyrics are the kind that give the impression more is yet to come – “I’d rather be lonely/Than be by your side/I’d rather be lonely…”, he cries as the song echoes it’s final notes into a hollow distance.



11. ‘The Water’ (2.0 STARS)


The only track on the album that is entirely instrumental, with no element of electronic music at all, it serves as a fine album closer but is essentially, very dull, even compared to the rest of the album. It shares the heavy-duty balladry and influences of “Disco lento” but it still doesn’t give you that hair-raising moment when the ends of your fingers tingle and you get a hot flush accompanied with a raised heartbeat that the other ballads like ‘Evelyn’ and ‘Illuminated’’ do frequently.


“There’s something in the water/I do not feel safe” Theo purrs over the string-lead, minor key production as he warns his friends not to go into “the water”. Whilst he tries to make it HURTS-y as possible with his basso falto employed on the lyrics “that surface” (probably to give you that goose-bump feeling), it’s sounds like the soundtrack to an old, black and white spy/horror film, but keep and ear out for the muffled scream at the end of the track, as Theo falls into the water and falls below the surface. It’s that attention to detial that make everything about HURTS special.



12. ‘Verona’ (hidden track, starting at 4:45 of ‘The Water’) (2.0 STARS)


I wouldn’t have added this to the review if I didn’t think it needed to be, and whilst it’s not exactly a ground-breaking single, or even an album track, it shows a completely different side to the boys. Still a ballad, it wouldn’t sounds out of place being sung by a grand choir at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Dragging out their opera singer once more, plus plenty of horns and strings, it’s a beautiful two minute ode to a lover.


Of course, it’d never be a single, as it’s as non-commercial as a used toilet, but it does show that the Mancunian duo have more musical know-how that many perceive… even if, at times, it sounds like Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.


TRACK OF THE NON-ALBUM!



00. ‘Happiness’ (non-album track) (5.0 STARS)


Again, this track wouldn’t have got a review if I didn’t think it needed one. You can find this track at Amazon and at many other places over the internet.


Bafflingly, HURTS’ most commercial song to date didn’t even make their album, despite it being named after it. ‘Happiness’ is a song that isn’t (Yes, that’s right, it ISN’T) another ballad, or even an upbeat one, it’s a normal electronically influenced pop song.


Drawing influences from Depechemode/Erasure once more, it rages along, pulling it’s listener out of his-her comfort zone as Theo get’s all personal by shouting “I don’t want you happiness/I don’t need your happiness”, accompanying him in the thundering production side of the song is a thumping bassline and an angry guitar/synth/what ever is actually is. It’s a crime that this isn’t on the album, as it’s clearly a Top 10 track, unlike most of the (at times) quite frankly, mundane, non-commercial love songs that fill up 80% of ‘Happiness’.


“We don’t need your cheap sal-va-tion/We sure don’t want sym-pa-thy” Theo intonates in the middle eight. Ouch, what did we do!?



Post Mortem


A singles act, HURTS are not. But they are an albums act, as this is by far one of the most cohesively brilliant albums I’ve listened to in a long time, even out-matching pop veteran Kylie Minogue’s latest effort ‘Aphrodite’.


Whilst some may call them and 80’s wannabe act, they aren’t anything of the sort: they clearly draw their influences from a heavier, more emotional genre with wall-shaking musical sections and stunningly emotive vocals. Their weakest point is the fact that they do seem to cosy with the idea of slow, morbid love songs, for the album is without doubt a lot darker than you’d first expect, even with that album cover but, amongst the heavier material, ‘Sunday’ and ‘Better Than Love’ are bound to lighten up proceedings, and it’ll only take a simple YouTube rip to get ‘Happiness’ on your playlist aswell.


There have only been two albums released this year that have maintained their brilliance since their release: ‘The Illusion Of Safety’ by The Hoosiers (seriously recommend this, I gave this 9.6/10) and this, I’ve had this now for over a month, listening and re-listening to each song, with loving attention to detail in every aspect of the production, and nothing has faded from the first few seconds I began to listen to each song.


You may not like them or their style; you can call them what you like; boring, mournful, tedious, but the one thing you cannot deny, is that they’ve really got the tunes.



Album Rating: 9.0/10


Download These: ‘Silver Lining’, ‘Wonderful Life’, ‘Sunday’, ‘Stay’, ‘Illuminated’, ‘Evelyn’, ‘Better Than Love’, ‘Devotion’, ‘Happiness’.

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