As clear as it is that WhoHurtYou was formulated to give All Time Low’s Jack Barakat an outlet on the side akin to Alex Gaskarth’s Simple Creatures, the argument can be made that there at least feels like a reason for that project to exist. As poor as their efforts have been up to now, there’s some creativity that’s driven both Simple Creatures EPs; with WhoHurtYou though, the most they’ve been able to muster is some solid production and hooks, with everything else being pretty forgettable, run-of-the-mill pop fare. It’s also not a good sign when the majority of Stages has already been released in its singles, to the point where WhoHurtYou have shown their hand so much that there’s really nothing that can come as a surprise on the full EP.
And honestly, that might be what cripples Stages that most. There’s nothing unexpected that can result in a sudden uptick in quality, nor does this material feel any more impressive when collated as a whole. If anything it only highlights just how limited WhoHurtYou are, able to scrape by on the basics of pop writing and composition, but lacking a sense of identity beyond Barakat who feels like a peripheral presence at the very most. It’s about as basic as this sort of mainstream-leaning pop comes, and when the duo have nothing to offer beyond that, there’s a fundamental lack of anything worthwhile that Stages brings.
It’s not a good sign when the most emphatic positive that the EP has is how it’s absolutely fine at hitting the basic level it’s clearly looking to cultivate its appeal in, but that’s ultimately where Stages thrives the most. The choppy, underplayed guitars and washed-out synths of Not The One and Lesson In Letting Go are nice and propulsive most of the time (even if the former’s comparisons to David Guetta and Sia’s Titanium remain too obvious to ignore), and there’s a general clarity to the whole thing that accentuates its modern sheen and sleekness well. What’s more, the dour, overly-heavy tones that modern pop frequently falls victim to seem to have been deftly skipped around; there’s a more deliberate pace to Nobody Wins thanks to its bigger beat, but otherwise, WhoHurtYou are able to keep the compositions pretty lithe and workable. It’s just a shame that they can feel so barebones for the majority of the time, without much in the way of a defining characteristic that could separate them from so much of the modern pop landscape. The colours are still very muted and washed-out in a way that’s become so played-out and over-familiar, and the ‘80s synth tones that form the basis of effectively every track really aren’t being pushed to their limit of inventiveness. For a side-project with the potential to do something much grander and out-of-the-ordinary than Barakat’s main band, WhoHurtYou feel disappointingly restrained in their efforts, not helped by Kevin Fisher have a voice that’s certainly decent in its liquidity and emotiveness, but stands as one of the most anonymous pop performances put to record maybe this year.
As such, the writing feels designed to reflect that overall unambitiousness, while still attempting to stand up as something that’s supposed to feel emotional and deep-seated without succeeding in really any of that. Apparently this whole project was conceived as a means of catharsis following a breakup, but it’s not like there’s all that much to Stages that has that sort of energy, largely defaulting to meandering, somewhat pitiful ruminations that linger on the same subject without ever moving or feeling as though they’re leading to some sort of growth. The constant flitting between framing of toxicity and genuine love on Wish We Never Met and Nobody Wins already hints towards an insecurity that isn’t flattering in the slightest, but when the central conceit of having moved on to healthier and happier states on Lesson In Letting Go is completely undercut by Fisher’s desire to still have his ex in his life on Can We Still Be Friends?, there’s no stable throughline that’s formed through any of this that feels even remotely complete. If it was presented in a way that could suitably convey the sense of turmoil and confusion, that would be one thing, but the constant breathiness and framing that this is all coming from a place of real pain don’t really scan with a very clean pop palate, and what’s left is an EP that wants to portray both its damage and its fragility in a way that doesn’t connect almost at all.
Granted, that’s probably a deeper analysis than what WhoHurtYou were aiming for on Stages, mostly because this seems like a case where the general ease of imprintability has been bolstered by real-life experiences to come across as more genuine, when really all this is is another safe pop project that never goes beyond that. It’s fine enough in terms of how its crafted to muscle past most of Simple Creatures’ output at least, but with a total lack of identifiable personality and a lyrical sentiment that, even across just five tracks, becomes incredibly tiresome, Stages is about as unnecessary as it comes. It’s not offensive or anything, but if WhoHurtYou can actually do more off that back of an approach as limited as this, that’ll be a genuine shock.
For fans of: Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, Charlie Puth
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Stages’ by WhoHurtYou is out now on Fueled By Ramen.