Album review: Hurts – ‘Happiness’ (RCA)

Ludicrous on the heroic scale, yes, but love them or hate them, you cannot deny they've got the tunes

You know a band’s doing something worthwhile when they make people feel uncomfortable. And boy, do [a]Hurts[/a] make indie snobs feel uneasy, with their sax solos, wet-look hair, and videos that look uncannily like Flight Of The Conchords’ [a]Pet Shop Boys[/a] spoof ‘Inner City Pressure’. ‘ARE THEY FOR REAL?’, wail the haters, smashing their fists on the pub table, apoplectic at the nerve of a band who would presume to write gut-punching tunes with choruses the size of ocean liners.

Well, those people are wrong. Music needs a band like Hurts right now. When the pfft-core indie heroes of the day are all writing songs about getting baked and sprawling on the sofa, here’s a band not afraid to display titanic ambition. Sure, the duo occasionally flirt with ridiculousness. Their debut is essentially a flickbook of pop lyrical clichés, populated by lovers crying in the pouring rain, holdin’ on, never lettin’ go. Theo Hutchcraft’s vocals are at least a thousand times more ‘epic’ and ‘glacial’ than Morten Harket bellowing into an igloo.

But only a joyless weirdo could deny that these are fearsomely well-crafted songs, as clean-lined and immaculate as a well-cut suit. The kind of anthems you imagine would make an Artie Fufkin major label-type spin around from the mixing desk, gun-point his fingers, and declare: “Gennelmen, you just cut your first hit rekkerd.” Cue lines of coke and high-fives all round.

Of course, it’s enormously ’80s – more ’80s than guzzling a can of Quatro in front of Going Live (ask a 30-year-old). But if, as seems increasingly likely, we are culturally doomed to repeat that decade forever, at least let’s have a band who do it properly, who take the retro thing to its ultimate limit. Hurts don’t just pilfer a Roland synthesizer here, a drum machine there. They harness that decade’s whole underpinning pop ethos: its spirit of expansiveness, its shamelessness, its irony-free faith in the emotive power of a glorious hook.

Take a tune like ‘Stay’, which features a vast choir on backing vocals and briefly threatens to turn into ‘Never Forget’ by [a]Take That[/a]. It’s hard to see how it could have been any more hysterical and overblown, short of Hutchcraft recording his vocals atop a windswept mountain peak while tearing his own shirt asunder. Drop the song at a power ballads night and there’d be more clenched fists than a fascist rally.

But there’s something heroic about it too. If you can’t appreciate the genius of its construction, its glinting formal perfection, well… you’re probably not much of a fan of pop music. And if you feel nothing for ‘Stay’, or galloping recent single ‘Better Than Love’, or ‘Devotion’ (complete with silky backing vocals from Kylie Minogue), I cringe to think how many other classics from the pop canon you’re wilfully closing your ears to.

Admittedly there is a point towards the end of the album at which Hurts’ obsession with plundering the charts of three decades ago becomes less endearing and starts to look a little, well, desperate. The ‘secret’ track ‘Verona’ finds Hutchcraft emoting theatrically about the Italian city – so that’s like [a]Ultravox[/a]’s ‘Vienna’ only a bit,
er, further south. Certainly, you’d do well to not take Hurts’ music quite as seriously as they take it themselves.

Even so, it’s weird that people will gleefully lap up Hollywood blockbusters, yet they won’t tolerate their musical equivalent, which is an album like this: billowing, escapist nonsense that raises your heart rate, slaps a smile on your face and sounds godlike when drunk. A guilty pleasure? Not in the slightest. These are songs to be treasured without a shred of shame.

Luke Lewis

Click here to get your copy of Hurts’ ‘Happiness’ from the Rough Trade shop.