“Clearest Blue,” the best song on Chvrches’ ridiculously good sophomore album Every Open Eye, doesn’t have the structure of a standard pop song. There’s no chorus, but the chorus isn’t the focal point. Instead the arrangement dances with you, building up tension and then pulling back again, until all the synths and drums are layered up so heavily that all the song can do is explode. And then, holy fuck does it ever explode. The whole song is structured like a Skrillex track or something, everything building up to this one glorious and climactic drop. But the drop isn’t some gut-kicking bass throb. It’s a huge, surging, monumental two-finger keyboard riff, a not-too-distant cousin of the riff from Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough.” Every time I hear that song — even when I’m just sitting at my desk typing, which is most of the time — I immediately go into fist-pumping dumb-out mode when that riff kicks in. It’s a physical response. I can’t help myself. And I can’t remember a synthpop song did that to me. You know the drum break from New Order’s “Blue Monday,” the tsst tsst tsst tsst BOOM part? Probably the greatest moment of any sythpop song ever recorded? This is like that. I’m not saying it’s as great as that. But it’s like that. Can you visualize what’s going to happen when festival audiences get to hear that riff? Can’t you just fucking see it?
I can’t imagine the sort of pressure that comes after you release a great, fully-formed, instantly popular debut album. “Sophomore slump” is an overused term for a reason. There are so many ways the second album can go badly. An artist can get too ambitious. An artist can fail to get ambitious enough. Sometimes, an artist tries out a whole new sound and completely misses out on everything that was great about the first album in the first place. Sometimes, an artist returns to the exact same sound and makes an album that turns out to be a shadow of the first one. I was a bit worried upon learning that Chvrches had returned to the same studio where they made 2013’s The Bones Of What You Believe, figuring that they wanted to remain the same band, no matter what. That’s an admirable idea, but it doesn’t always work out. This time, it worked out. Chvrches are very much the same band who made Bones, and Every Open Eye finds every big, sincere, melodic sweet spot that that album hit. But this time around, they’re more locked-in, more efficient, and more assured. They attack their chosen sound with force and vigor and joy, and they’ve given us a version of what Bones would be if Bones was an even better album.
Chvrches have spent the past two years touring hard and playing to big audiences, learning what works and what doesn’t. And if you’ve seen them live anytime recently, you know what a steady and confident show they have. They don’t rely on lights or props or effects, and they don’t even do that much onstage, except for the once-a-show moment when Martin Doherty grabs the mic and tears around the stage like a teenage hardcore-band frontman. They just stare straight at you and push these songs in your face. The Bones songs could work in that situation. The Every Open Eye songs are going to slay. In Every Open Eye, I hear an album full of songs that have been precision-engineered to make you feel things when you hear them in large rooms or fields full of strangers. The hooks are big and clean and straightforward. The sentiments are vague but easy to appreciate. The songs never rush, but they always hit their climaxes at the exact right moments. The synths sound a bit bigger and bolder than they did the last time around, but they’re doing the same things. They’re murmuring and sighing until it’s time to bug the fuck out on the grand, overwhelming choruses. Almost every song has a riff that you can hum, which is important. At 11 tracks, the album has no filler whatsoever. There are only good songs and great ones, and the great ones have moments that make you shiver. Consider, for example, “Make Them Gold,” the strongest competition that “Clearest Blue” has in the best-song-on-the-album race. The big moment on the chorus is the way Lauren Mayberry stretches the word “gold” out: “We will take the best parts of ourselves and make them goooold.” There’s such hope and fear and determination in the way she sings that one word. It kills me every time.
Let’s talk about Mayberry for a second. When I wrote about Bones two years ago, I compared Mayberry to Shirley Manson, another charismatic Scottish woman fronting a band of relatively anonymous producer-type dudes. And I even talked about the idea that there was some careerism at work, that those producer-type dudes saw Mayberry as their ticket out of the Glasgow sad-sack guitar-rock underground. That was shitty and unfair of me. I didn’t know anything about these people, how they worked or how they came together. And in the time since then, we’ve learned that Chvrches are a tight unit, that they don’t think of themselves as a band with a frontperson. Mayberry has taken admirable and public stands against the bullshit online misogyny that she faces everyday, and the dudes have done everything they can to support her. They all seem to genuinely like and respect each other. And even though Every Open Eye is a synthpop album, it’s still the type of thing you can only get when the members of a group have a tight and profound working chemistry.
Still, Mayberry is the reason that Chvrches are special. “High Enough To Carry You Over,” the one song that Doherty sings, is a very good song, and it’s still easily the album’s lowest-energy moment. Mayberry is a singer who puts enormous feeling and sincerity into every syllable, and she’s got this lovely sparkling clarity to her voice. She never swaddles it in electronic effects. She doesn’t showily oversing or layer up multi-tracked versions of that voice. Instead, she sings her notes with a sharp, clear directness. She sounds a smidge more comfortable singing than she did on Bones, something she attributes to the vocal lessons that she took between albums. Sometimes on Every Open Eye, she’s singing about romantic distance: “Here’s to just another no man / If you need another, say you need another.” Sometimes, she’s singing about needing support: “Whenever I feel it coming on, you can be well aware / If ever I try to push away, you can just keep me there / So please say you’ll meet me / Meet me halfway.” And even though she never uses specific terms in her lyrics or lets you know exactly what’s going on in her life, to hear her is to feel a weird sense of empathy for her. She’s a giving singer, emotionally, and to hear her is to feel something like connection. That’s the thing about Chvrches. They may be playing this glittering, wide-reaching electronic pop music, but they never sound anything other than human.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Future and Drake’s combustible surprise collaboration What A Time To Be Alive.
• Ryan Adams’ Taylor Swift dirge-rock makeover 1989.
• Kurt Vile’s bummed-out classic-rock meditation b’lieve i’m goin down….
• Disclosure’s sophomore-slump record Caracal.
• The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die’s emotive post-hardcore opus Harmlessness.
• Julia Holter’s graceful, ballad-based Have You In My Wilderness.
• Bat For Lashes/TOY side project Sexwitch’s self-titled tribal-psych freakout.
• Amy Bezunartea’s sharp, direct self-examination New Villain.
• The Dead Weather’s feral Camaro-rocker Dodge & Burn.
• New Order’s gleaming return Music Complete.
• Geoff Rickly/Lostprophets project No Devotion’s grand synth-rock debut Permanence.
• Youth Lagoon’s personal, sparkling indie rocker Savage Hills Ballroom.
• Fluisteraars’ polished, considered black metal monument Luwte.
• Girl Band’s noise-rock snarler Holding Hands With Jamie.
• Slonk Donkerson’s sloppy DIY punker The Lunar Martini Motorbike Club And Their Respective Destinies.
• Wand’s fuzzed-out stoner-rocker 1000 Days.
• Patty Griffin’s rootsy, meditative Servant Of Love.
• Silversun Pickups’ polished twinkle-rocker Better Nature.
• Doe Paoro’s melodically thoughtful After.
• Dungen’s jazz-addled psych trip Allas Sak.
• Fetty Wap’s nothing-but-hits self-titled debut.
• The Game’ star-studded sequel-to-the-hit The Documentary 2.
• Michael Chapman’s fingerpicked avant-folker Fish.
• Black Breath’s roiling metallic hardcore attack Slaves Beyond Death.
• Caspian’s structured post-rocker Dust And Disquiet.
• Former Emeralds member Steve Hauschildt’s sentimental ambient album Where All Is Fled.
• The Underachievers’ stoner-rap blissout Evermore – The Art Of Duality.
• Robert Pollard project Ricked Wicky’s very Pollardian Swimmer To A Liquid Armchair.
• Futurebirds’ slow-burning Southern rocker Hotel Parties.
• Valley Maker’s sad, rustic folker When I Was A Child.
• Peaches’ defiantly nasty comeback Rub.
• Heaters’ hypnotic psych rocker Holy Water Pool.
• Monogold’s breezy, drifting indie rocker Good Heavens.
• George Clanton’s soft, sticky 100% Electronica.
• Art Contest’s pulsating math-rocker Two Songs.
• Flaming Lips affiliates Fever The Ghost’s tricky psych LP Zirconium Meconium.
• Big Boi and Phantogram’s collaborative EP Big Grams.
• Guerrilla Toss’ Flood Dosed EP.
• Menace Beach’s Super Transporterreum EP.
• dd elle’s u EP.
• Phantoms’ Broken Halo EP.