Hurts: Faith review – ever more refined ridiculousness from the po-faced pop duo

On their fifth album, the Manchester pair, who once started off deadly serious, have ended up looking and sounding very silly indeed, with daft lyrics set to reverb-washed synthpop

★★☆☆☆

Serious question: can you remember Hurts? Not their songs per se. No, can you remember how they looked? Because they’re virtually unrecognisable in 2020 glancing at Faith’s cover. The beard that keyboardist Adam Anderson debuted on the cover to 2017’s Desire has consumed half his face, a hint of eyeshadow moodily applied below his brow. Singer Theo Hutchcraft has grown out his hair, reaching down towards his shoulders. They look, quite frankly, like two errant members of a brutal doom metal band, albeit modelling the newest designs for Topman in their downtime. Previously, they appeared to have walked off the music video to Ultravox’s Vienna: buttoned-up shirts, immaculately oiled hair, clean-shaven and wearing a look of Roman-statued self-importance. Now, think back to those songs.

Stay, Wonderful Life, Miracle … ring any bells? It’s unlikely they will; the truth is they weren’t much good. Hurts positioned themselves as po-faced, enigmatic postmodernists redolent of 80s pop’s more austere side, but their actual music belied that impression, sometimes co-written with Fame Academy winner David Sneddon or produced by Stuart Price: glossy, bombastic, surging, faultlessly commercial despite their foray into darker, more distorted areas on 2013’s Exile. They were also pretentious in the truest sense of the word, inventing a genre that didn’t exist – “disco lento”, a nice idea in hindsight, given the sheer lack of mischief that attends today’s pop and rock groups whose collective pursuit of blunt authenticity means everyone from Mabel to Catfish and the Bottlemen resembles your friends’ housemates – to buff up their awkwardly pompous tunes. Drippy, angsty and ickily sentimental, their stylised aesthetic withered in the face of their wind-machine-assisted melodrama: brooding young professionals moonlighting as a pop duo during their lunch hour; they were, in essence, the Pret Shop Boys.

Understandably, they’re still trying to shake off that impression. Not without its moments, Desire, unfortunately, seemed to suggest they were merely conduits for pop songwriters-for-hire or, at the very least, were content to offer new spins on pop mainstays: tropical house, stadium pop-funk, post-Adele sulking over thwarted romances. Faith’s task, therefore, is to sculpt a new identity for the featureless twosome – hence, perhaps, the front cover. What transpires are a series of retreads through old, generic modes. Thinking he’s North Yorkshire’s answer to Justin Timberlake on the histrionic Voices, Hutchcraft croons blandly, backed by a gospel-y choir, pumping beats and synth arpeggios. Somebody revives the 2010s pop-chart craze for shuddering, stomping dubsteppy thumps and jarring, stop-start lurches. Liar cheats by stealing wholesale from Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight. And if Trent Reznor finds out about Numb, there’s a good chance he’ll be calling his lawyers to send them a cease and desist letter.

Suffer goes after Depeche Mode’s darker 90s material for inspiration, right down to its lonely guitar twang and menacing, leather-clad electronic chug. “Show me your sexy little intellect,” Hutchcraft opens in a throaty, presumably sexually-charged whisper, which, with the best will in the world, isn’t a line that’ll have get significant other buckling at the knees. “Run your fingers down my body like a bayonet,” he continues. Hang on? Is he quite sure about that? You stop to think what kind of person runs their fingers down a bayonet in the same lovingly tender way they might run their fingers down someone’s body. A soldier? A first world war reenactment enthusiast? A psychopath? Chasing erotic thrills never sounded so clunky and overwritten.

Fractured is far superior, implausibly, recalling Prince’s Black Sweat inasmuch as it commits to an interpretation of funk made almost wholly on machines. It’s Faith’s strongest moment, dynamic and inventive: there’s an on-edge, twisted guitar part that’s a distant echo of Robert Fripp’s riff on David Bowie’s Fashion, the beat copies the minimalist groove on Cassie’s Me & U and, at one point, the rhythm track falls intriguingly out of pitch. Hurts were always into R&B, but on Fracured, it’s far less languid and poised, genuinely exciting in a way the ballads – like Redemption or All I Have to Give, the titles of which should alert you to the oversupply of clichés on them both – just aren’t, the lyrics interestingly refusing sexual desire: “I’m fractured; get your hands off me!”. All I Have to Give’s words, on the other hand, are so hackneyed they don’t actually mean anything. Which means your attention drifts to the mechanics of these songs.

From a technical standpoint, Slave to Your Love is mightily accomplished, the verses dragging rolling storm clouds that part as soon as the soaring, piano-assisted chorus arrives. But it’s brazenly formulaic: granted, it’ll be distinctive enough blasting from your car-stereo speakers when it inevitably appears on Radio 2’s daytime playlist, mixing references to Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy into the bluster, but it feels artfully calculated. Then again, from the get-go, there was something artfully calculated about Hurts. Even so, that reading neglects another element of their MO: their obvious strain of ridiculousness, albeit more refined here. White Horses’s narrative – rich woman, unlucky in love, gets chauffeured to the beach to watch the sunset and ride the titular steeds – is twaddle, but the production is brilliant: shapeshifting, expansive, inspired by but not reliant on the sounds of mid-80s synthpop.

Nevertheless, Faith’s almost wilful pallor and severity everywhere else masks just how silly it all is: emotions writ large, squeezing out anthems from feeling a little bit torn up inside, shipments of industrial-strength reverb to make sure everything’s embossed and big. Darkest Hour, for instance, spends around four minutes pretending to be A Rush of Blood to the Head-era Coldplay. It isn’t much good and you probably won’t remember it once it’s over. In fact, the only way Faith registers in your mind is allowing you to remember just how ludicrous Hurts seemed at the beginning of their career, and how, ultimately, some things never change.

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