Hurts ditch the storytelling in favour of songs about The Agony And Ecstasy Of Being Theo Hutchcraft. High drama follows
Choking on your own hubris is the undoing of many a callow rock star, and the backstreets of pop history are littered with second albums from people who booked the dwarves for the aftershow a bit too early. With Hurts it isn’t so simple. Their hubris – swollen by private jets and parties round Transformers director Michael Bay’s place – is their thing. It’s the reason Theo Hutchcraft and Adam Anderson have became so completely huge in continental Europe, but have never connected so well on home turf, where too many people find that sort of thing vulgar.
Hurts’ grandiosity is all the more staggering when you find out about the Manchester studentville that birthed them. But when you’ve taken an opera singer on tour, coaxed Kylie onto your debut (2010’s ‘Happiness’) for a cameo (on ‘Devotion’) and have a singer, in Hutchcraft, who channels Freddie Mercury more compellingly than anyone since Freddie himself, there is only one way to go on your second album. And that way is not a pared-down alt.country direction.
‘Exile’’s opening title track has Theo peering down on the planet beneath him, his own heartbreak turned into apocalyptic thunderbolts: “We’ll say goodbye girl, and watch as the world burns” he sings, like he’s gunning for the next Bond theme. And from here on in, Theo and Adam create a towering, electronic, monolithic sound not unlike Muse’s flirtations with funk and electronics on the trio’s last album ‘The 2nd Law’. At times on this track you can’t tell the two bands apart. Hurts may have ditched their touring opera singer, but his spirit lives on.
You do worry that a little something has been lost between Hurts’ first and second albums though. Part of what made them so unutterably fantastic was 2010’s cinematic second single ‘Wonderful Life’, and its skill at storytelling –
a kind of Tom Petty parable told by the Pet Shop Boys. It’s not a route they follow up.
‘Exile’ is, from boot-tip to quiff, all about The Agony And The Ecstasy Of Being Theo Hutchcraft. But because a grand and fabulous mode of theatre pervades everything about this band, you’re often a few degrees off completely connecting. Theo may well have feelings and insecurities just like a real boy, but the character here is more about the high drama of Richard III than the so-humble-he’s-basically-a-farmer Guy Garvey. Still, getting frustrated at a Hurts record for being a bit much is like moaning that Doctor Who is losing its roots in kitchen-sink reality.
And by hooking their comeback on ‘Exile’’s lead single ‘Miracle’, they reminded everyone just how bloody fantastic they were at writing anthemic songs. From its first “woah-oh-oh” you know the emphatic chorus “’Cos I’m looking for a miracle” is going to be worth the wait. Third track ‘Sandman’ is also fantastic, a mechanical krautrocky dirge with a pop heart and creepy schoolgirl backing vocals.
Inevitably, it can’t continue for 12 songs. At the album’s middle point, ‘The Road’ gets lost in fuzz, ‘Cupid’ overrun by Bowie-isms and ‘Mercy’ drowned in orchestral flourishes, none of them quite hitting the money shot. But then something extraordinary happens again, as desolate ballad ‘The Crow’ pares everything down and achieves something more human. Something a bit, say, Jeff Buckley. Then we’re off again, with the baroque ‘Somebody To Die For’, Theo chewing the scenery like he’s been starved for a week: “I’ve got nothing left to live for/Got no reason left to die/But when I’m standing in the gallows, I’ll be staring at the sky/Because no matter where they take me, in death I will survive”. It doesn’t make much sense, but it doesn’t matter. As things glide in to land on ‘Help’, The Agony And The Ecstasy Of Being Theo Hutchcraft doesn’t reach a climax. It’s a dramatic flourish on a record full of dramatic flourishes, not a conclusion. Christ knows what’ll happen in the next part of the Hurts story, but it’s safe
to say they won’t be losing their dwarf deposit.