Following up on a stellar debut album is tricky business. Does the sophomore album contain more of the same? Or does the sound evolve and change, bringing with it potential risk? After their debut blasted them on the pop scene full force, the Hurts were faced with this uncomfortable choice – change or stick to a winning formula. Their new album Exile seems to indicate that the Manchester based duo chose neither; or to be precise - both.
Hurts burst out, seemingly out of nowhere, with their instant-classic, tastefully retro 80’s pop album Happiness with pomp but not pretention. Though they looked and acted like new romantic dandies straight out of the 80’s Spandau Ballet school, their music backed them up in what was one of the finer pop debuts in recent times. As such, a follow-up was already a daunting task. Even if they chose to do more of the same, the level of quality was bound to drop. Singer and author Theo Hutchcraft even mentioned as such in an interview he gave between album cycles, astutely commenting on the fact that the first album was produced at a time of great personal and emotional sorrow. He remarked that their success made them far too happy and content to create their melancholy music, even joking they need something bad to happen so they could get inspired.
Listening to Exile, it seems their task is only half fulfilled. The overall mood alternates from their trademark somber, introspective, heartbreak mood through to dark and gritty, yet upbeat, club anthems. Hutchcraft again pointed out that while the first album is based around love and loss, Exile is based on sex and death. This dichotomy is evident throughout the whole album – and this reluctance and hesitation do decide on a clear direction is its undoing.
Roughly half of Exile is playing it safe. Songs like Somebody to Die For, The Crow, Help and Guilt all posses the traits of a “typical” Hurts album – they could easily find their place on their debut Happiness. This part of the record is slightly sub-par to their previous work yet very similar and thus, highly enjoyable.
The other half, though, seems to be an experiment; an effort to change up their sound. Whether this is, ironically, a consequence of their newfound happiness, or a simple need to “change it up” – it becomes evident that the experiment has largely failed. The songs are made more fuzzy, gritty, heavy and danceable, with obvious aspiration to more recent Depeche Mode club hits. Exile features an unnecessary attempt of modernizing the Hurts retro sound by adding modern electronica, distortion and even dubstep elements. Further experimentation led to the “arena rock” guitar additions and the bland, Coldplay-like sound of songs such as Miracle and the title track. The hip hop backtrack of Sandman is especially atrocious, along with the similarly inclined main riff of Bilind, pointlessly enhanced by a choir of children. This experimentation does sometimes yield great results, such as the instantly classic Only You And the head-banging Mercy.
Though Hurts’ idea to create an album that will both please fans of their debut and inspire and cater to a new audience might be noble in theory; in practice, Exile seems an awkward Frankenstein monster of a record, saved from disaster only by the duo’s sublime songwriting abilities and the knack to create a memorable, catchy and touching song – even if they are their own worst enemy in doing it. Because of this, Exile can, and should, be picked apart for the parts you do enjoy. We are left with the hope that Hurts will, in their future efforts, change completely or stay with a winning formula – decide on a direction and stick with it.