Sometimes a band emerges just in time to encapsulate a moment in music. Consider this incomplete history of post-Y2K indie rock trends: You want to sum up the early aughts garage rock revival? Cue up the Strokes’ Is This It. The post-punk revival that unfolded soon after? Interpol’s Turn On The Bright Lights functions as a sacred tome. The dance-punk movement that took hold next? The Rapture’s Echoes is your jam. These acts did not lack for successful peers, but they owned their overlapping epochs to the extent that they’ve aged into historical shorthand, totems by which to remember those eras.
Such bands loom large over their micro-genres, but they often struggle to move beyond them. When you arrive fully formed, captivating listeners and inspiring imitators with your well-defined aesthetic, messing with that formula is tricky business. The conflict between repetition and evolution is not unique to these era-defining acts, but in such circumstances it’s amplified to the point of distortion. The impulse to explore is tempered by a stronger-than-normal demand to keep doing what you’re doing, to continue signifying a moment that has proven profitable and listeners have loaded up with sentimental resonance — maybe even to extend that moment, acting as a bastion against the cruel passage of time.
On the other hand, no band wants to be imprisoned in the past, so even the ones who opt for if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it sophomore LPs (think Room On Fire) usually venture into unknown territory (think First Impressions Of Earth) when they sense the context around them changing. These attempted metamorphoses can be messy; if ruling one environment is difficult, adapting to new ones is near impossible. Yet what’s the alternative? Stagnation? Lightning doesn’t strike twice, and it when it does strike it’s over before you realize what’s happened.
Which brings us to Chvrches, the scene-defining avatar for indie rock’s 2010s dalliance with synth-pop. They made their entry into the mass consciousness in 2013, embodying a cultural shift from rock groups toying with synth-pop aesthetics (Passion Pit, Phoenix, MGMT) toward outright synth-pop acts with a rock band’s sensibility and marketing plan. These kinds of projects seemed impossible to escape half a decade ago, but in hindsight, Chvrches stand out. When asked to name a synth-y indie band, they are likely the first one that comes to mind. Even Purity Ring, their closest competition as standard-bearers for the indie-goes-synth-pop sound — the White Stripes to their Strokes, if you will — sounded more than a little like Chvrches on their most recent LP, 2015’s Another Eternity. They weren’t the only ones.
It’s easy to see why other groups would be attracted to Chvrches’ approach. On 2013’s The Bones Of What You Believe, the Glasgow trio mustered all the anthem-writing skill they’d accumulated in their years with various depressive Scottish guitar bands and turned it loose on keyboards and drum machines. The result was soaring, sparkling pop music, tinted by melancholy but bright and approachable in execution. Lauren Mayberry’s voice beamed across the sleek digital backdrops like light reflecting on polished metal. She confidently and capably sold stories of romantic tumult, colored by humor and vulnerability but vague enough to write them into your own personal drama. So: pop music, rendered artfully and with just enough personality to make an impression. It sounded spectacular, and it won them a devoted fan base that happened to include a lot of festival curators and alternative radio programmers.
Two years later, when Chvrches returned with Every Open Eye, that sound remained spectacular, and it still played well in the marketplace, even as the idea of pop music emerging from the indie-rock sphere was starting to seem quaint. Every Open Eye was a retrenchment record, one of those sequels that hits all the most beloved beats from the original, but harder. Those releases run the risk of redundancy, but in this case it worked. The production was increasingly dynamic, sometimes violent in its physicality. Mayberry was ever more melodious and commanding, deeply human but with a near-superhuman ability to convey emotional power. The tracklist included fewer obvious standouts but also less filler. They didn’t just avoid the sophomore slump, they triumphantly leapt over it. They could keep releasing albums that sounded exactly like that forever as long as they kept the songwriting sharp.
Instead, they’ve delivered an album that maintains the sparkle but can’t seem to find the spark. Chvrches are touting Love Is Dead, out this Friday, as their lean into the full-fledged pop sound they’ve always carefully skirted by keeping all their production in-house. Having nailed their Room On Fire maneuver, they’ve opted for the First Impressions Of Earth approach on LP3, tweaking their insular creative process in search of fresh inspiration. For the Strokes, that meant hiring industry veteran David Kahne in place of longtime producer Gordon Raphael. For Chvrches, it means working with mainstream super-producer Greg Kurstin, the guy who produced Adele’s “Hello,” on eight of 12 tracks and Steve Mac, the guy who produced Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You,” on another. They also turned to the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart as a mentor figure and welcomed the National’s Matt Berninger as a duet partner.
A bio by Lizzy Goodman — incidentally, best known for writing a book centered on the Strokes — portrays the band as “true blue Glaswegian punks” cautiously edging up toward the big, bad mainstream machine in pursuit of making the ubiquitous “wind-in-your-hair” radio hits they’ve always craved. Simultaneously, the album supposedly indulges what Martin Doherty calls the band’s “artistic and introspective and angry” side: “We’ve broadened the appeal, but there are moments that are more difficult than anything we’ve ever done.” Despite pushing in opposite directions, Love Is Dead is allegedly more coherent because Mayberry wrote her lyrics with the rest of the band in the room. Goodman quotes Martin Doherty on the band’s trepidation about welcoming outsiders into the fold: “We knew that if you get led down the wrong path it can completely derail your career.” It’s supposed to indicate that Chvrches avoided such a fate; after hearing the album, it reads more like an epitaph.
Love Is Dead is not a faceplant, but it’s definitely a stumble. Maybe you figured that out after hearing lead single “Get Out,” a perfectly competent Chvrches song that not-so-subtly rewrites The Bones Of What You Believe opener “The Mother We Share,” or seeing the atrocious cover art, which approximates a Trapper Keeper purchased at Hot Topic. Maybe you gave up at “My Enemy,” the Berninger duet, a dark synth-pop ballad that awkwardly marries the National’s depressive simmer to the neon Chvrches template. Maybe subsequent singles “Never Say Die” and “Miracle” tipped you off, both of them strong tunes smothered by post-EDM throbs seemingly borrowed from OneRepublic or X Ambassadors, saddling their show-stopping hooks with overwrought artifice. Maybe, against a mounting pile of evidence suggesting the band’s attempts to penetrate a wider audience have dulled its impact, you’re still holding out hope.
That would put you in parallel with Mayberry, who here joins many of her peers in attempting to parse the disastrous state of the world in search of evidence for optimism. In conjunction with pursuing a broader sound, she aimed for a broader lyrical approach, expanding beyond personal romantic entanglements toward reflections on the end of empathy and the resilience necessary to imagine a better future. The vagueness that has always made her lyrics such a cipher extends to these more globally minded numbers, but that’s not always a problem. The uptempo flicker “Graves” works well as a catchall rallying cry against complacency: “You can look away while they’re dancing on our graves/ But I will stop at nothing now.” The percolating “Heaven/Hell” offers further power-to-the-people sloganeering: “Have you reached the point of no return? We can raise our glasses, dancing on the ashes as it burns.” These aren’t solutions, but they function well enough as fight songs for #TheResistance.
Other times, Mayberry proves too simplistic. Repeating the phrase “Never, never, never, ever, never, ever, ever say die” ad nauseam proves more irritating than inspiring, while “Miracle” and “Wonderland” rely on platitudes like “We’re looking for angels in the darkest of skies” and “Can’t live forever with my head in the clouds.” The Depeche Mode-inspired “Deliverance” fares better, applying some trademark Mayberry moonbeam melodies to basic but relevant critiques of religious hypocrisy: “Is it deliverance if you can never change? Is it deliverance if you hurt me in exchange?” She’s back in her interpersonal comfort zone on “Forever,” expressing regret for burned bridges against some of the most rock-oriented production on the album. And she explores a different sort of remorse on opener “Graffiti,” a practically apocalyptic look back on wasted youth, lamenting, “Time to kill was always an illusion,” before sighing, “I’ve been waiting for my whole life to grow old/ And now we never will, never will.”
Mayberry’s words, melodies, and winsome presence serve the songs as well as they ever have, and many of the ones they’ve withheld until release day are of a higher quality than the advance singles. “Forever” goes full Flashdance and pulls it off. “Graffiti” rips off old Chvrches songs better than “Get Out” does, pivoting skyward at the chorus with dramatic flair. “Deliverance” thrives in that luminescent E*MO*TION zone, and deep cuts “Graves,” “Heaven/Hell,” and “Wonderland” add new wrinkles to their sound. But Love Is Dead is plagued by turgid lows the likes of which we haven’t seen on previous Chvrches albums. The minimal ballad “Really Gone” is rudderless filler. The requisite Doherty lead vocal, “God’s Plan,” will make you wish you were listening to Drake even if you hate Drake. Those EDM-inflected rock songs are a double bummer because you can hear the excellent Chvrches songs struggling to break through the studio sludge.
The rap about Love Is Dead presenting the truest, most coherent version of Chvrches rings hollow. This is the first time they’ve seemed confused about who they are and what they’re doing. If it feels unfair to criticize a band long heralded as a beacon of indie-rock poptimism for taking a logical next step toward pop radio airplay, please understand the distinction between pop geared for maximum sonic pleasure versus pop geared for maximum profit and exposure. No one needs the latter from this band. There are already enough careerists out there hawking a slightly shittier version of Chvrches in search of a big break. SoundCloud remains saturated with that stuff even after the wave seems to have crested and the critical zeitgeist has largely shifted back toward guitar music.
Which raises the question: Is Love Is Dead actually worse than the previous Chvrches albums, or has the band merely fallen out of fashion? Many of the acts that become emblematic of their scene lose some of their luster in hindsight, once the buzz wears off, but when I revisited those first two LPs this past week they’d surrendered none of their vibrance. The same cannot be said for Chvrches themselves. With Love Is Dead, they’ve reminded us once again how difficult it can be to transcend your moment.
Love Is Dead is out 5/25 on Glassnote.