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You could probably bash off a moderately pointless thesis on why the alternative scene of the last decade has taken so little influence from the songwriting of Gary Barlow, when so much other Nineties pop - from Eurodance to R&B - has undoubtedly had an impact. I can’t be bothered to think the thing through properly, but I suppose you’d probably conclude that Barlow’s best work is more classic songcrafting in a Sixties/Seventies vein than intrinsically of its time, while the overwhelming majority of boyband music – including, let’s be honest, most of Take That's material – was anodyne bilge that still lives on in the various projects of Simon Cowell.
Still, considering the sheer popularity of Take That, East 17, Boyzone, Let Loose, 911 etcetera etcetera, it would seem peculiar if we saw no trace of them at all in this generation’s magpie-eyed hipsters. And lo! On the 6th of September was released Happiness, by Hurts.
Now, on the extreme offchance you’re in Theo Hutchcraft and Adam Anderson’s marketing department, you may be looking at the above and screaming “NO! EIGHTIES! DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH MONEY WE PAID TO MAKE THEM EIGHTIES? LOTS!”. True, the duo’s Sturmabteilung-chic and artful publicity shots – I’ll bet even their gigs are in monochrome – has gone an awfully long way towards convincing people that the duo are a throwback to the early New Romantic era. The pair do utilise Anderson’s synth as their chief instrument. And I doubt they’d have been turned away from The Blitz club, back in the day. But I’m sorry chaps: I lived through the Nineties, and no amount of fascist garb is fooling this child of Thatcher.
To be fair, the boyband Hurts most obviously recall are Savage Garden, the Aussie one synth/one singer duo who were clearly influenced by the New Romantics (‘To the Moon and Back’ being pretty much the best song Duran Duran didn’t write). But as with Savage Garden, the Eighties flourishes are just that. The bands Hurts hark to visually – Tears for Fears, early Depeche Mode and Human League, Visage, The Associates – were genuinely in love with the possibilities of synthesisers, and also boasted singers with weird-bordering-on-unique voices. Hurts, by contrast, offer something much tamer, albeit not without an occasional sense of drama. Happiness opener ‘Silver Lining’ begins with a promisingly dissonant electronic growl, which recedes soon enough to allow some big, stately, glock-like synths in. It sounds pretty awesome until Hutchcraft makes his entrance, his voice pure Barlow/Harvey/Hayes soul-lite as he declares “there’s a storm on the streets but you still don’t run” with all the gravitas of a Chihuahua. The little sob in his voice as he reaches the bridge line of “rain’s gonna follow you wherever you go” would surely have Louis Walsh dabbing at his eyes.
Anyway, this is all reading a bit negatively. ‘Wonderful Life’ is good stuff, the big, booming backing bed flattering Hutchcraft’s vocals, its bombastically atmospheric instrumental breakdown – with just a hint of ‘Careless Whisper’ sax – pretty sexy. It’s not as good as ‘Wonderful Life’ by Black, but... y’know. ‘Evelyn’ is probably the next best thing, a slow, martial build to a vaguely unsettling chorus of “stay with me Evelyn, don’t leave me with the medicine” before Anderson is let off the hook to blast out a load of sturm und drang electrical noise. ‘Better Than Love’ has a lovely fizzy, twinkly keyboard line reminiscent of Muse’s ‘Bliss’ and boasts by far Hutchcraft’s strongest performance on the record.
But then ‘Blood, Tears & Gold’ really is full on boyband territory, a watery swing-style verse leading into a “never let you down bay-be, bay-be” chorus that was just built for Westlife to get up off their stools for. ‘Sunday’, ditto (sample lyric: “we both know love is not that easy, I wish I’d known that it would be this hard to be alone”), though it does have a decent hi-NRG syth line. 'Stay' has a gospel choir. ‘Devotion’ has Kylie Minogue. None of it is desperately fun, the music thin, the embellishments desperately gauche.
I suppose there are two ways of looking at this band. One is that Hurts are actually trying to sound how they look, and just haven’t pulled it off, and could possibly do with a better singer. The other is that they’ve never listened to a Cabaret Voltaire record in their lives and the styling is all a ploy to get the hipster kids on board. Either way, Happiness promises the rough edges and absurdity of one era’s pop, but for the most part gives the mum-friendliness of the next. Hurts would surely be better if they committed to one or the other: either a genuinely enjoyable electro-pop act, or a band capable of sloughing their trendy trappings to the point they could write a song as transcendentally earnest as ‘Back For Good’ or ‘Stay Another Day’. For now they are, in essence, a couple of slightly confusing men dressed as Nazis.
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