Hurts built suspense for Exile, their second album, by releasing a two minute teaser video online. The video featured The Road, a song said to be inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel of the same name. It shows Theo Hutchcraft and Adam Anderson as boys, adolescents and adults, as well as several scenes depicting fighting and bondage. And a dead person.
They also had a countdown clock on their website that, much like the ill fated Mayan calendar, tracked the seconds until the exact time when the world would end new single Miracles would be unleashed on the world.
So far, so dramatic. So it should surprise no one that Exile is not exactly a subtle album. Hurts take themselves so seriously that at times you might be unsure whether this is all some kind of pastiche and that you are the only one who isn’t in on the joke.
Evidence of this comes from that promo video. According to the band, The Road is inspired by JG Ballard’s novel Crash, a book about people who have a sexual fetish for car accidents, as well as by McCarthy’s novel about a post-civilisation world.
All of which amounts to a bleak, if grand, set of inspirations. The song itself is exceptionally dark, starting with a creepy vocal before erupting into industrial drums that Trent Reznor would be proud of. It’s an example of where Hurts get it right on Exile – making stadium sized pop music with a darker underbelly, without forcing it, in the same black vein as Depeche Mode.
Title track and opener Exile is another case in point. In features Hutchcraft doing a Matt Bellamy of Muse impression on the vocal, while behind him the band crank up the volume with frownyfaced, world-crushing synths and a bass that recalls Massive Attack‘s Angel. Like that song, it sounds big, bold and bleak. And rather wonderful.
More mainstream but equally promising is Only You, a shameless pop love song playing to a much bigger crowd than Hurts have been used to so far. It doesn’t try too hard to be anything more than a simple, catchy track. Like much of this album it’s a little too serious for its own good, but then Hurts are as much about the imagery as the music.
Elsewhere, The Cupid is a built around a huge ’80s guitar riff and its alluringly sinister refrain “I’ll never let you go”. Hurts here bring together the sort of dark sexual imagery that used to get Dave Gahan sweating in his leather trousers, and it works a treat.
But there are also many moments on Exile when this desire to write songs that are bigger than their niche, that are pop enough to fill an arena but dark enough to stand out, just doesn’t deliver. Sandman is more boy band than indie gloom – from its drum machine heart to the rather cringeworthy chorus, it feels forced and almost a parody of itself. Blind suffers from similar faults. It starts with some ‘way-o-way-o’s’ and hand clap drums, before what is designed as an epic chorus but just feels a bit limp, as if the song couldn’t have gone anywhere without it.
There is some padding on Exile too. Help and The Crow, both slower ballads, make for good counterweights to all the pop choruses. The former’s most dramatic moments of Coldplay-esque guitar builds sound decidedly influenced by John Murphy‘s ubiquitous main theme from the soundtrack to the Danny Boyle movie Sunshine, while the latter lilts along like a contemporary update of Chris Isaak‘s Wicked Game. But they both still feel like they have been added for variety rather than on merit. Somebody To Die For comes closer to the epic, arena number Hurts clearly want, but it’s so serious that it’s difficult to enjoy for the simple, well-produced pop that it is.
Exile isn’t a bad album, and Hurts do what they do well. As they’ve proved with this album and its predecessor Happiness, they can write decent pop songs – this is the pairing that made Wonderful Life and Silver Lining, lest we forget – to which they bring epic backdrops and darkly themed influences. Yet Exile is found wanting when they try too much to be the stadium band rather than allowing the drama to play out.