Chromatics have acknowledged the resounding call of “Dear Tommy when?” by … not answering it at all. Instead, they’ve sidestepped the question and put out an altogether different album by surprise. Feels about right.
The saga of Dear Tommy stretches all the way back to 2014, when the band’s Johnny Jewel prematurely announced an impending release date for the album, tracklist and all, and then proceeded to delay and recalibrate it for the next five years. It seems like we’re not supposed to forget about that missing album entirely — the new Closer To Grey is stamped with a big numeral VII, and Dear Tommy is still listed on their label’s website as album number VI — so for now the unreleased project remains a question mark hanging in the air, an appropriate mystery for a band that has always cultivated an intriguing mythology for themselves.
It’d be a disservice to their new album to get too hung up on what the heck happened to Dear Tommy. As the first Chromatics album in seven years, Closer To Grey does more than enough to satisfy. And the album seems to have roots just about as far back as their still-unreleased one — its title track came out back in 2014, and a couple years ago Jewel was already talking up another record that the band was working on to follow Dear Tommy. This is not a band that does anything on accident, and now that a new Chromatics album has finally arrived in the world, Closer To Grey is as intentional and fully-realized as you’d expect.
The late-night-drive rock titans are just as in control of themselves as ever. They are still, undoubtedly, absolute masters of their craft. Closer To Grey feels a little slighter than the epic scope of their 2012 opus Kill For Love — and, I’d imagine, whatever 21-track sprawl is planned for Dear Tommy (now pared down to 19 if Chromatics’ Instagram comments are to be believed). Instead, this one opts for an invigorating and self-contained 46 minutes. For music that often twirls around in a somnambulant haze, that shorter length serves the band well.
Chromatics know how to set a scene. The band prides themselves on being cinematic, down to the MPAA marker that has adorned all their recent merchandise and this very album. The songs on Closer To Grey are studies in creeping unease. Chromatics are sonic directors, pulling back the frame bit-by-bit as they go. They introduce elements into their songs that cascade and ricochet, coalescing by the end in shadowy light. Each song feels like a set piece: the vampiric lust of “You’re No Good,” the hypnotic, lounge lizard shagginess of “Light As A Feather,” “Touch Red”‘s de-evolution into a croaking guitar line. Each is a peek into a window you don’t want to see in but can’t look away from.
Closer To Grey opens with the ticking of a clock. A common occurrence in Chromatics lore, it is, I’d assume, a cheeky nod to the long wait and expectations that naturally come with this album, but it’s also a heart-pulsing moment by itself. As that ticking speeds up and up, it feels like we’re running out of time, and as Chromatics descend into their first new album in seven years head-first, they follow up all of that anticipation with … a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound Of Silence.”
It’s a bit of delayed gratification, but the band’s choice of covers has always offered up some insight into their where their heads are at. They also started off Kill For Love with a cover, Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black),” and just as that proved a proper kicking off point for that album, so too does “Sound Of Silence” pave the way for Closer To Grey. The original song was written during the great political upheaval of the 1960s, when it felt like the end of the world was waiting around every corner and every voice in the room got far too loud. They draw a direct parallel to the present day, a continuous cycle of darkness and disconnection. Chromatics masterfully transform every song they take on, pulling them into their own world and placing them in their own context. That’s the case for the other cover on the album, Jesus And Mary Chain’s “On The Wall,” a transformative take on a Darklands cut. They blow the song out into an eight-minute gasp, Ruth Radelet’s voice stuck on the telling refrain: “I’m like the clock/ On the wall,” ticking down to oblivion.
Chromatics clearly have time on their mind, mostly how we don’t have enough of it and we aren’t using what little time we have left effectively enough. A lot of these songs sound upended, and even the slower cuts feel like they’re searching for mooring. “Move A Mountain” is a treacly highlight that pulls from corny ’70s songwriter fare but find a deft balance within that. The album’s closing track, “Wishing Well,” is cut from the same cloth. Both are songs about perpetually holding out hope despite all evidence to the contrary. On the former, Radelet looks gloomily out of a frosty snowglobe hoping for a sign that will never materialize. “I tried to start a fire/ I’m waiting for it to burn/ My luck has all been bad/ I’m waiting for it to turn,” she sings. “Wishing Well” is nostalgic for simpler times that no longer exist: “It’s a quiet life in a nowhere town/ Where the arcade still glows/ When no one’s around.”
Even the album’s more upbeat songs have a weariness to them, a disappointment that sinks its teeth in with every chunky synth. “Twist The Knife” is about a disappearance that hangs about like a ghost, a dance song that remains unresolved. “You can’t let go of the past when every day feels like the last,” Radelet sings. “Sometimes love just feels like hate.” On “Whispers In The Hall,” a rework of a briefly-available older song called “In Silence,” the band channels the Halloween theme’s plinking keys and drives them toward even more menacing ends. It’s eerie and portentous, a haunting that still manages to still sound groovy. “Little girl, the world just wants to break you/ They’ve come to dull that look from in your eyes,” Radelet intones. “Don’t you know that it only makes you stronger?/ You don’t have to run and hide.”
Chromatics are embracing the dark undercurrents that feel like they’re getting stronger and stronger everyday, funneling all of that darkness into synth-pop transcendence. As we get nearer and nearer to that ultimate fade to black, Chromatics want to be the soundtrack to the end of the world. Closer To Grey is a bit more compact than we’ve come to expect from Chromatics, but in an environment where everyone’s jockeying for your time and attention, it feels like a gift from a band that knows they might have tried your patience but want to make up for it. It’s clear that the band operates on a continuum, constantly working on new music and only sporadically morphing it into a proper release. That perfectionist streak might be a little frustrating to fans, but if perfection is what they’re striving for, then they end up reaching it more often than not. As they say, all good things take time, even though we’re running out the clock on fate.
Closer To Grey is out now via Italians Do It Better.