What is pop music? It’s an almost impossible word to define. Everyone’s idea is different.
But whatever your idea, there’s no argument that Manchester duo Hurts are trying to make pop music. Grandiose overtly dramatic electronic pop music, populated with orchestral flushes, smooth holler-a-long emotional choruses, lush synthetic arrangements, classy ballads and a fleeting appearance by Kylie Minogue. Even if their heavily 80’s influenced sound may not necessarily be ‘popular’ with everyone, their attempts at making pop largely succeed.
Much has been made of the Hurts image, style, supposed seriousness and back story. In his review of Happiness for the Guardian Alexis ‘Petridish’ Petridis spent more time describing this than he actually did the music. Other commentators have criticised Hurts for being pretentious and trying too hard to be cool - even though the genre of music they create has long been considered preposterously cheesy. These criticisms and comments come in the post-modern age we now live in, where it’s simply not possible to accept something at face value, we’re all too knowing, everything has a past reference point. There are only so many sounds, so many fashions, with a limited number of notes and ideas. Once we’ve constructed our perfect back catalogue in our heads and decided the right and wrong way for a band to be we tend to decide if a new album / artist is good or bad by those constructs we have created. It’s easy to believe that the days of musical innocence are long gone, killed by the beast of music journalism, the internet and time.
Yet throw away the constructs as well as the big record deal, the stylised videos and the ostentatious appearance of Hurts - things that in some peoples heads immediately destroy the notion of liking the band - and you will find that Happiness is a surprisingly melancholy and innocent album. Happiness is an album that after repeated listens finds a place in the heart through a simple core of romantic emotions and cohesive songs. The references are very 80’s New Wave synth - Tears For Fears, Double, Black, Alphaville, OMD, A-Ha, early Thomas Dolby and Ultravox, plus in songs such as Blood Tears & Gold and Stay there’s more than a significant smattering of early 90’s boy bands Take That and Westlife. If these bands do not make you squirm awkwardly then there’s a high chance that you will find great pleasure from Happiness. Happiness is a very European album - with its towering synths and echoing drum sounds. This European sound may explain why many in the increasingly Americanised Great Britain haven’t taken to the Hurts sound fully so far. We suspect this is a band that wouldn’t use phrases such as “awesome,” and “next level shit.” They’re even less likely to wheel out “party jams.” They probably don’t even know what such things are.
Happiness is a great thinking man (or womans) pop album, an album that’s full of simple emotions and surprising power. Unlike much pop music it isn’t constructed from a few radio friendly singles and a clutch of filler, instead being a cohesive piece of work full of detail and with very few weak spots. The only slight disappointment is Devotion - the song that features Kylie - which sounds like a plodding second rate amalgamation of all of the other songs on the album. Otherwise from the cinematic string and piano power ballad (there are a lot of ballads on the record) of The Water to Sunday, a strangely uplifting song about loneliness Happiness is a highly accomplished album. Single Better Than Love may have failed to chart but its Simple Minds-gone-electro pulses and cinematic rave polish is gloriously uplifting. With its lyrics of rockets kissing the sky, the penultimate track Unspoken is an epic pop victory full of Tears For Fears Songs from the Big Chair cascading pianos and a surging orchestra that reaches for perfection.
Jarvis Cocker once said that being on the dole was the best thing that could happen to a band, giving them time to be creative. Hurts thank the Department of Work and Pensions in the sleeve notes of Happiness and so one can only draw the conclusion that having been attempting, but failing, to achieve success for some time with bands such as Daggers, Theo and Adam of Hurts also agree with Cocker.
Happiness won’t appeal to everyone. Indie snobs will detest it because of the constructs and barriers they have created. But listen with an open mind and heart and you may just discover that you’re listening to the pop album of the year. Of course pop music doesn’t necessarily last, but that doesn’t matter. Enjoy the here and now, even if in this case that here and now has both legs in the past.