Hurts - Exile
Yes, if the album cover didn't give it away, Hurts have managed to get even moodier. Five stars then for what is a stupendous feat in its own right, the Manchester-based duo building on the icy-cool, atmospheric pop of 2010's Happiness to deliver a return that doesn't cower in the shadow of 'second album syndrome' but instead pulls through with shadows of its own. Lead single 'Miracle' hints at the bruises pulsing within Exile ("You crucified my heart of gold / Look at all the damage you have done in time") but envelopes the pain in widescreen bombast, the added guitars and America-sized chorus wrapping the despair in euphoric hope. As with their debut, Theo Hutchcraft and Adam Anderson juxtapose the light and dark with skill to create superb pop-singles-in-waiting, but there's a sense of reckless abandon second time around resulting in album highlights that surrender to the black.
A heart of darkness beats here, the album's middle stretch fraught with drama and very bad things. There's nothing wrong with the album opener 'Exile'; in fact, you could be forgiven for mistaking the title track for latter-days Muse, with Theo's vocal Bellamy-esque and the music more muscular than before. However, it feels like a warm-up for bigger and better things. 'Sandman' is a new beast for the band, its trippy Timbaland-style beat and creepy backing vocals helping to create an overriding sense of foreboding that spills into the rest of the album. Hell, even on the likes of 'Somebody to Die For' and 'Blind', where the slick boyband melodies could have been drawn up by Gary Barlow, it's not long before something sumptuously sick finds its way into the cracks; the latter's 'sing-along' chorus consists of the entirely healthy loved-up sentiment "cut out my eyes and leave me blind". Glowsticks in the air, everybody.
From here, it's miles to go before we sleep - but in the best way, things getting better as they get worse. 'The Road' is a shuddering nightmare that explodes at its apex in a way that recalls 'Angel' by Massive Attack. The obsessive 'Only You' spills bloody tears on to the dancefloor ("In this sea of scars, the first cut is the deepest / No matter where you are") and 'Cupid' continues in this vein; acting as Exile's 'Better Than Love', it's as if Bret Easton Ellis crafted a sharp-edged soundtrack to stalking, conjuring images of a shark-eyed Theo-as-Bateman watching a doomed blonde from the sidelines of the club ("Bring my lover to her knees / Pierce her skin and make her fall in love with me"). You might even be too busy pulling a shape to this and 'Mercy', effectively a mash-up of all the best bits from Depeche Mode and Placebo, to take in the oily black lyrics until the third or fourth listen.
The final third of the album has a more reflective tone, beginning with the wistful beauty of 'The Crow', a lost cousin to 'Wicked Game'. Just as Chris Isaak's biggest hit drifted along David Lynch's lost highway in Wild At Heart, this song is the realised promise of something cinematic - if you're thinking of hitting the road with your lover and not looking back, this could come to define the journey whether blood is spilled on the way or not. The closing chapters of Exile don't touch this for effectiveness, but finale 'Help' is a bold and cathartic closer with Elton John on keys and fans around the world joining in Theo's plea for aid. It's the moment where the sunshine floods in, Hutchcraft and Anderson finally escaping the darkness and rushing headstrong into the light. It's a fantastic finish but the sun cannot rise without setting, and thereafter you may find yourself returning to dwell in Exile's shadows.