Listening to “Happiness” is like being a pre-adolescent girl whose breasts are just starting to grow. You can’t avoid thinking: what’s happening to me? With the snob dictionary in hand: why am I listening so often to “The Suburbs” by Arcade Fire? The thing is that you love it (your new pectoral appendages or those eleven songs, what does it matter?), but you don’t understand the process of how you reached this point. Have you done something wrong? Have you eaten a lot of hormone-filled chicken? Are the years of listening to the Pet Shop Boys starting to get to you? “ Wonderful Life”, one of last year’s undeniable hits, sold us the possibility that our own particular 80’s revival was going to stop exhuming cadavers with the hairsprayed, teased hair of Robert Smith and start digging up bodies that could so poetically be reclaimed, like ABC, Visage or A Flock Of Seagulls. Now, with “Happiness” in hand, it turns out that from “new romantic” we’ve got to Duran Duran in “ Ordinary World” and that, on the other hand, it’s inevitable to think that many of the songs on the debut of Hurts could replace any of the teary songs that play every time they kick someone out of “The X Factor”.
And best of all is that Theo Hutchcraft and Adam Anderson manage to make it so that none of what I’ve said so far can be considered negative: they turn the limits of good and bad upside down so that by banging on your ears with a hammer that has the word “hit” stamped on the side, you end up losing your balance on that hanging (and precarious) bridge that separates the Country of the Infallible Critics from The States of Happy Listeners. Like what happens with the movie “Inception” (in which Christopher Nolan adjusts his game to make idiot cinema-goers feel intelligent, while at the same time handing out just enough complications to stimulate the slightly more demanding audience), “Happiness” weighs all of its ingredients to the millimetre so that the banquet will please all of the guests: those who like to think of themselves as sybarites can stick to the many details of an excellent production that insists on playing hide and seek with the commonplaces of stadium pop in recent years (megalomaniac choruses, baritones, the kind of electronic percussion that explodes between your ribs, dazzling synthesisers that slide like an electric eel between your fingers without gloves for protection), while fans of the “Skins” compilations will have another collection of songs to shout their heads off to on stormy nights when the drama queen enzyme reaches unsuspected limits in their veins.
In fact, you might also think that these are the excuses of an embarrassed critic to justify repeated listening to “Happiness”. But when it comes to portraying Hurts’ playful, ambiguous intention, is there a better image than the ironic oxymoron that beats in the title of the album? Because if there is a feeling that is notably absent from the eleven songs, it is precisely happiness. Hutchcraft and Anderson practice the sport of gloom with the same ease with which Dark Wave did (are we talking about the advent of Bright Wave?) and, at the same time, they perfectly distil the synthetic melancholy that the Pet Shop Boys have always practiced, however distant the final result of their songs might be from each other. Jude the Obscure” and Hurts, on the other hand, would be closer to the decadent, but moderate romanticism of “ Don Juan” in a post-modern version. The basis underlying both proposals is the same: sadness and the emotional defeat of a sorrowful soul, which sees its mood amplified through powerful images of empty streets, solitary street lights, torrential rains, and buildings in ruins that obstruct the happy functioning of modern life.
This (delicious) deficit of happiness affects not only the lyrics of the songs, but rather Anderson knows how to dress Hutchcraft’s voice (with such a talent for suffering) in sumptuous, fascinating melodic clothing. And so, between them, they polish eleven pearls in which the (few) imperfections only add value to the final piece. “ Silver Lining” is one of the best opening songs on an album of the season: a buzzing synthesiser gives way to a dramatic ode with Germanic resonances in the choruses. “Wonderful Life” totally blows off easy comparisons with the Black song and drops an atomic bomb on Pop Nation that it will take us awhile to recover from. “ Blood Tears & Gold” reveals itself to be the perfect ballad, with its vaporous synthesisers and spacious, ethereal percussion. “ Sunday” will doubtless be one of the commercial singles that will hit world charts the hardest: at times, it makes you think of the possibility of Keane and The Killers waking up one Sunday morning with a hangover, not knowing who that arm and leg belong to. “ Stay” sublimates 90’s melodic pop with choruses, and perfectly brings it together with the golden age of synth, OMD at the head.
“ Illuminated” is another of the album’s excellent songs, and the one that is doubtless more twisted when it comes to applying synthesisers that are both elusive and craggy at the same time. While “ Evelyn” is probably the only moment when Hurts lets their guard down (despite tremendous percussion), “ Better than Love” straightens out the final stretch of the album, reminding us that if these two decide to make a danceable album one day, electro divas are going to have such financial troubles they’ll be grocery shopping from the special offers at Tesco. The “ballads” section opens by making it senseless for Hurts to collaborate with Kylie: “ Devotion” takes your breath away by recovering the qualities somewhere between sensual and bitter of Minogue’s “ Confide in Me”, taking them to a new level of sweet drama-queen-ism. In “ Unspoken”, Anderson minimises the electronic part and steps over into the area of composition with a symphonic progression in crescendo that ends up exploding into tragedy. And finally, (before “Verona”, a hidden track), “ Water” closes the album with the minimalism of a piano, a violin, and a double bass, giving wings to a song that tastes of black and white.
In fact, the whole album tastes like black and white. It smacks of something as trite as living la dolce vita, taking a dip in the Trevi Fountain at the same time that’d desert the herd to waste your time in the decadent Nazi cabarets filmed by Visconti. It smacks of the post-modern sadness of the eyes of a Monica Vitti dressed in mourning as the star of the new musical venture of a Baz Luhrmann who flecks the climax of the film with glitter and fanfare. It smacks of hardcore aestheticism. “Happiness” smacks of that nostalgic, cathartic happiness that is only possible when you have reached the limits of your own tragedy. And everyone knows about that, whether you’re a snobbish critics, potential participant in a television dance contest, or a confused fifteen-year-old.
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