Hit or miss? John Preston looks at the ambitious new album from Chvrches.
Chvrches have made a lot about the fact that this is an album about world and not personal politics this time around, and also that they shopped around for producers who would help make their sound bigger somehow and more universally appealing – a political decision in itself it could be said.
Super-producer Greg Kurstin subsequently handles a lot of Love Is Dead and his effect on the band’s anthemic electro-pop is more subtle than expected. The changes can be heard but in ways that are hard to immediately define.
If the Scottish trio were counting on Kurstin giving them that still-elusive hit single, however, then he may have failed them. There is nothing here that screams number 1, end-of-the-year chart domination along the lines of Kurstin’s previous work with Sia (‘Chandelier’) or Adele (‘Hello’). And if he hasn’t delivered this, then what has he bought to the table?
Rihanna frequently turns to the age-old pop trope of intense lyrical repetition in her work. She and her collaborators understand the skill involved with the rhythmical expertise needed to elevate the potentially irritating to the sublime, ‘Umbrella’ (‘ella, ella, ella, eh, eh, eh, eh’) and ‘Work’ (saying the word work, and then wer, a lot basically) are brilliant and slightly strange pop songs. Rihanna may never have worked with Greg Kurstin (in fact she turned down ‘Cheap Thrills’, a number 1 for Sia and Kurstin) but he seems keen to apply this same lyrical tick to Love Is Dead with an almost obsessive zeal.
‘Deliverance’, ‘Get Out’, ‘Forever’ and ‘Never Say Die’ all use repetition of a word or part of a word (‘deliver, iver, iver, iver, iverance’) as their chorus, ad nauseam, but fail to hit the excitable delirium intended. ‘Never Say Die’ in particular deserves better; the decadent, wall-of-sound synths that impregnate the song’s middle eight make for a spectacular moment.
The apparent political slant that Lauren Mayberry has constantly referred to whilst promoting the album is hard to discern a lot of the time. Unless this is one of the reasons that would guide you to this album as opposed to their other two, though, then this isn’t a problem.
Nothing would have been more thrilling and satisfying than hearing Mayberry explicitly tear the likes of Trump and Weinstein a new arsehole, and as the female lead singer of a stadium band she could take a lot from her personal experiences. But the lyrics on the whole are ambiguous and frequently sound as though they easily could be metaphors for a relationship in crisis (which is what the plaintive but drippy ballad ‘Really Gone’ is about).
‘Graves’ is where everything comes together, however. Depicting death as a consequence of class and race against an exhilarating and near-unhinged speeding beat whilst throwing in a gigantic but thoughtful chorus, the song is the album’s brilliant highlight. ‘Graffiti’ and ‘Wonderland’ both achieve similar results and are as good as anything the band have produced to date.
Chvrches’ debut album had moments of brilliance with much of it coming from the precision of the band’s immediate melodies which were irresistible and, for such stickiness, often complexly structured. Lauren Mayberry’s vocal delivery was the other reason; her combined regional accent and snide condemnation could be gloriously brutal.
The band’s follow-up, 2015’s Every Open Eye, was better written and had a higher hit-rate whilst sonically staying on the same track – with occasional turns into unexpected and usually successful experimentation with other genres. Love Is Dead ultimately feels like a slight step backwards for the band. The fact that they are no longer self-produced has not bought about any radical change, certainly, but neither has it expanded their sound or revealed a side that elevates them into a better version of their past selves.
Chvrches are a band that feel necessary and exciting still, but this album will likely be the one that results in them returning with a greater sense of their own identity and with their best work still to come.