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Chvrches - Love Is Dead Music Album Reviews

Chvrches - Love Is Dead Music Album Reviews
With help from some outside producers, Chvrches try to launch themselves into the mainstream. The result is an uncomplicated, unsurprising collection of steely synth pop.

The onus on any band naming their album Love Is Dead is to either prove it or prove it wrong. Uncompromising statements have been Chvrches’ currency since the beginning: short, punchy phrases that alternately empower and eviscerate. The title of the Scottish trio’s third album refers to what singer Lauren Mayberry has called society’s “death of empathy” and it accompanies 13 songs designed to get more people than ever to notice that message. It’s fair enough that, seven years in, one of the bands responsible for poptimising indie-rock might want to launch themselves ruthlessly at the mainstream. But on Love Is Dead, Chvrches misjudge the moment a few different ways.

A Chvrches song used to make you gasp—take the fantastical melodies of 2013’s “The Mother We Share”—and even in the trio’s more straightforward moments, they conjured audacious drama. The drop of 2015’s “Clearest Blue” wasn’t just striking because it ripped off Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough,” but because it refashioned it as an EDM confetti bomb and got away with it. The trio always prided themselves on their resourcefulness—the fact that a damp Glasgow basement and a phalanx of obscure synthesizers wielded by members Iain Cook and Martin Doherty made their 2013 debut The Bones of What You Believe one of the few DIY (in spirit, if not label) albums to break the UK Top 10. So it’s strange that they should let outside producers in for the first time.

Assisted by ringer Greg Kurstin (Sia, Beck, Foo Fighters) and British pop mastermind Steve Mac (One Direction, Ed Sheeran, Shakira), much of Love Is Dead is stout and uncomplicated, keeping Chvrches’ ever-skyward outlook earthbound. “Get Out” opens with static claps on the beat; Mac’s “Miracle” features a lumbering “whoa-oh-oh” chorus better suited to Imagine Dragons. Kurstin’s presence recalls his work on Tegan and Sara’s excellent 2013 album Heartthrob, a pop transformation as giddy as it was sensitive to their style—heights that Love Is Dead reaches for but doesn’t often clinch. Besides, Chvrches have always been a smart pop band that is now, for some reason, second-guessing its instincts.

Love Is Dead’s straightforward gait often keeps Mayberry hemmed in, curtailing one of pop’s most dramatic ranges to one-note verses and structures that value repetition over surprise. The dazzling parts of a Chvrches song transcend a clichéd lyric but the lack of spectacle here makes the clichés glare (”Can’t live forever with my head in the clouds/Can’t predict the weather with my feet on the ground,” Mayberry frets on “Wonderland”) as Mayberry often leans on simple rhymes beaten into bruising choruses (”never, ever,” “get out, get out,” “deliver-iver-ance”). There are few moments as inventive and heart-seizing as “Graffiti,” in which Mayberry invokes names youthfully scrawled on a bathroom wall as a vivid metaphor for the precariousness of her generation’s future: “I’ve been waiting for my whole life to grow old,” she sings tenderly: “And now we never will.” It’s bleak yet hopeful, resignation tinged with beauty.

Maybe it’s a case of attempting to simplify the medium to amplify the message. Despite some pat songwriting, Love Is Dead features some of Mayberry’s most pointed lyrics, aimed at hypocrites and ivory tower-dwellers, and underscoring her commitment to the fight against them. A line about bodies “washing up on the shore” (which she’s explained is about dead refugee children) fits awkwardly in “Graves,” though otherwise, the song matches “Graffiti” for starry-eyed pleasure when Mayberry’s vengeful presence finds its truest calling. And again, despite its labored chorus, the simmering verses of “Deliverance” render tension elegantly. The first warns religious bigots that they’re on shaky ground, each line starting with “careful when;” the second finds Mayberry asserting hers is solid, each line starting, “Trust me…” Somber and seething, it ranks among her best work.

Mayberry searches relentlessly for light in the dark. Her insistence on standing for what is right and never turning a blind eye also reads as a fight to resist desensitization, a powerful theme for a pop record. But Love Is Dead often sounds desensitized, unyielding, and defensive. “I always regret the night I told you I would hate you till forever,” Mayberry repeats on “Forever” with a blunt force that doesn’t really sound remorseful; there’s neither anguish nor pride when she yells, “Maybe I am just too much for you” at the song’s climax. “My Enemy,” a moody duet with the National’s Matt Berninger, has a numbed quality, though the tone fits their exchange about how inflammatory emotions across a political (or perhaps romantic) divide can kill any possibility of discussion.

It’s only towards the end of the album that a welcome softness arrives. The blocky structures loosen up on “God’s Plan” (aka the inevitable one where Doherty sings), and “Wonderland” and “Heaven/Hell” bound in on basslines worthy of New Order, adding some much-needed euphoria and human physicality. The latter in particular is fittingly cosmic for the moment that Mayberry challenges other people’s ideas of how she should wield her power as a woman in pop. I feel guilty praising her defeated turn on “Really Gone” in case it perpetuates stereotypes of what pop femininity “should” look like—i.e. vulnerable—but nevertheless, it’s a lovely coda to a demanding album. Her Scottish accent breaks through as she sings, “I’m holding on, I’m holding on,” in a voice so high and forlorn that she seems to be doing so by her last nerve.

Whereas Chvrches sounded futuristic when they first emerged, it’s this lack of softness on Love Is Dead that makes it sound dated upon arrival, out of kilter with the current pop moment. Steely synths are out of fashion; kin like Years & Years, the 1975, Christine and the Queens, Troye Sivan, and even Paramore offer a playful tenderness that Chvrches avoid, or maybe even fear. Love Is Dead is admirably righteous, but it’s chilly, lacking the rallying impact of peers who have shown that empathy is more powerful than polemic. If Chvrches prove anything on their third album, it’s that pop that truly galvanizes in moments of hardship is never without love.

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