Hurts: Happiness | CD review

Hurts have the backstory and the image down pat, but the songs just don't stick, says Alexis Petridis

Anyone concerned about the veracity of information found on the internet might look long and hard at the case of the Wanky Balls festival. According to a recent feature in the Independent, this was the name under which The Big Chill started life, before understandably rebranding itself. Alas, the Wanky Balls festival existed only in the mind of an online mischief-maker: here was an object lesson in not just copying your information from Wikipedia without checking it first.

Some coverage of the Mancunian duo Hurts has had what you might call a touch of the Wanky Balls about it as well. At first glance, they appear to be another in a line of 80s-inspired pop wannabes. Their videos resemble a Guinness World Records attempt to cram as many Thatcher-era visual cliches into three minutes of film as possible: you watch the trenchcoat-clad figures trudging through snowy Mitteleuropean cities and women in black cocktail dresses and fascinators throwing meaningful shapes by swimming pools, and you are gripped by the certainty that Max Headroom is about to appear and start walking like an Egyptian. But Hurts claim their sound is actually inspired by an early-90s Italian genre called disco lento, which according to its Wikipedia page, featured "heavily electronic, slow emotional ballads".

The world of Italian pop is often wildly alien to British audiences: until recently, hardly anyone here knew about the bizarre 80s cult of cosmic disco, which involved northern Italian DJs playing reggae, Heaven 17 and Mike Oldfield records at the wrong speed. Peculiar as it sounds, cosmic disco existed, which doesn't seem to be something you can say about disco lento. Every internet reference to it appeared around the same time Hurts began to get attention. Some of the artists they cite are real – it's testament to the weirdness of Italian electronic pop that there really was a singer who called himself Gazebo and had hits called I Like Chopin, Ladies! and Trotsky Burger – but none of them described their music as lento. Others don't check out at all.

Depending on your perspective, their invention of a genre either places Hurts into a grand tradition of pop theorists and pranksters – such as the KLF and the ZTT label in its Paul Morley–helmed heyday – or smacks of dressing up something to appear more cool and interesting than it actually is. Certainly, there's nothing particularly weird about Hurts' music, unless you count a brief hidden track featuring an opera singer doing his nut, or the fact that elsewhere, it frequently recalls an area of pop's past previously unrevived: the glossy, late-80s sound of Go West, Climie Fisher and Johnny Hates Jazz. There are boom-clank electronic rhythms, dramatic orchestral synth stabs and the kind of impassioned mid-Atlantic vocal style in which emotional emphasis is signified by the appearance of an extra letter "a" on the end of words ("I found another girl to mess-a me around," cries singer Theo Hutchcraft, like one of those puppets that advertises Dolmio, but in the throes of a romantic crisis) and someone called Chew is continually addressed. Sometimes Chew's absence is mourned: "Here I am without Chew." On other occasions, Chew is cruelly dismissed: "I need to forget about Chew."

What Chew make of a Johnny Hates Jazz revival may dictate your feelings towards Happiness as a whole, although it's worth pointing out that's not the only thing the album evokes. Hurts' big idea involves welding post-Oasis mass singalong choruses to electronic pop. It's not a bad idea, but nor is it a particularly novel one, which explains why Happiness also regularly brings to mind both Robbie Williams and the sort of material a TV talent show finalist might dish up on their debut album, the former impression bolstered by a lot of self-obsessed lyrical soul searching in which Hutchcraft announces he needs Chew to help him resist various dark temptations, the latter by the presence of Fame Academy winner David Sneddon among the songwriters.

In fairness, when it works, it pushes buttons with an undeniable accuracy. Wonderful Life and Better Than Love would be fantastic pop songs whether they were by a Simon Cowell-approved moppet or a pair of arch, 80s-obsessed postmodernists. When the songs are flimsy and commonplace, as on Sunday and Illuminated, the constant striving for booming sonic grandeur begins to grate – every track sounds like a climax, and, as is common knowledge, all climax and no build-up is bound to end in frustration – and all but the most ardent Johnny Hates Jazz fan might start to wonder what the point is.

You get the feeling Hurts have spent more time making their backstory interesting than their music, which is a shame: pop music could do with more theorists and pranksters. But there's no point in theorising if the songs don't stick: that way lies a VIP ticket to Wanky Balls.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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