This Manchester duo’s 2010 debut album, Happiness, garnered them almost universal acclaim. I don’t think I ever read a single review of the album that wasn’t at least 90% positive. And so I was shocked when reviews of Exile, their just-released sophomore effort, started surfacing and were almost 90% negative. By the time I finally heard it myself I was expecting it to be terribly disappointing, but instead I found myself enjoying it just as much as Happiness, perhaps even a bit more. The funny thing is that the one song most people do seem to like on this album is the slightly melancholic anthem “Miracle,” which I’m not crazy about. It’s not an awful song, but the music during the verses sounds so much like Coldplay’s “Paradise” that I’m surprised Coldplay hasn’t sued them yet. I do have to say that I like “Miracle” better than “Paradise,” perhaps because I’m not terribly fond of Coldplay, but I still feel like “Miracle” is inferior to many of the other songs on Exile.
Singer Theo Hutchcraft and keyboardist Adam Anderson have many opportunities to shine on Exile and they often take them, save for when they’re doing a dreary number that demands subtlety. But even on murky songs like “Sandman,” it’s impossible not to be impressed by their talent for crafting hauntingly emotive songs that crawl inside of your head and remain there. The music of “Sandman” alone is enough to send chills running down your spine, but the lyrics are even more haunting: “I spent these waking hours waiting for the sandman, I spent these waking hours looking for his master plan, I’ll wait ‘til morning ‘til he comes to my house, And he’ll give no warning when he’s knocking me out.” It’s dreary stuff, but it’s supposed to be. Then there’s the most chilling thing about “Sandman” — the choir of children who repeatedly sing, “We’re waiting for the sandman, but he never hears the call.” There’s something about the way the kids sing that which makes it sound evil if not just plain menacing.
Although I wouldn’t go so far as to call it menacing, “The Road,” which is based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same title, is certainly very bleak. “The droning engine sings your Hallelujah, The broken headlamp lights your path to God.” There’s nothing optimistic there. But it’s poetic and beautiful nevertheless. It’s also an interesting turn for Hurts being that it’s the closest thing to industrial they’ve ever done, the song often calling to mind Nine Inch Nails.
Exile is not entirely dark though. “Only You,” which calls to mind Depeche Mode, feels slightly upbeat, especially during the chorus: “Because only you can set me free, So hold me close just like the first time.” The other lyrics may be a tad bit melancholic, but the song has a hopeful vibe, whereas many of the songs on the album speak from a place where hope has already been lost.
The album’s most beautiful song is arguably the ballad “The Crow,” which many are comparing to Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” though I personally do not feel that they’re all that much alike. “The Crow” is a dreary-sounding tune with dire lyrics, but somehow it’s also very pretty. “She spreads her wings when she’s gonna fly, the crow… If you make her sing when she’s coming she will let you know…” You could easily argue that the song is about embracing death, but there’s something romantic about that, about accepting one’s fate rather than fighting it. At least I think so. Maybe the masses are disappointed because the lyrics on their first album had more fight to them?