Time To Go Back To Chvrch

Sebastian Mlynarski & Kevin J Thomson

Time To Go Back To Chvrch

Sebastian Mlynarski & Kevin J Thomson

Chvrches’ last album wasn’t bad so much as it was awkward.

On 2018’s Love Is Dead, the anthemic Glasgow synth-pop band attempted to expand upon the success of their first two albums — which had earned them rave reviews, alternative radio airplay, and consistently large fonts on festival posters and turned singer Lauren Mayberry into an indie-world superstar — by teaming with hit-making producer Greg Kurstin in search of real-deal “wind-in-your-hair” pop music. Although it sometimes sounded the part, the album was bogged down by misbegotten experiments (a turgid Matt Berninger duet, some clumsy Imagine Dragons-style EDM pandering), retreads of superior Chvrches songs, and some overly vague and simplistic lyrics that weren’t up to Mayberry’s usual standards. Less than the work of a great band making the leap, Chvrches’ third LP resembled one of those disjointed releases from anonymous strivers and fading veterans stuck within the mainstream machine, albums that try a little bit of everything in the hopes that something will stick. Within the world of Spotify and Top 40 radio, nothing did. Not only did Love Is Dead fail to secure a mainstream breakthrough for Chvrches, it alienated parts of the trio’s existing fan base. And when they finally did crash the charts the following year, it was by teaming with Marshmello on the eminently forgettable “Here With Me.”

The Marshmello collab felt especially tragic because the best parts of Love Is Dead suggested Chvrches still had the potential to make special music if they could just manage not to let other people mess it up. Mayberry and bandmates Iain Cook and Martin Doherty have always had plenty of industry support, but they became the avatars for indie kids’ full-scale embrace of pop music while handling their music themselves. On debut The Bones Of What You Believe and follow-up Every Open Eye, Chvrches were a closed system, and they clearly knew what they were doing. Evidence since then has indicated that the more they invite other people into their creative process, the less appealing their music becomes. Having finally cracked the Hot 100 by joining up with a mercenary producer in a marshmallow helmet and fully abandoning what made them great in the first place, would they keep going down this road in search of hits at any cost? Fortunately, they have not.

With Screen Violence, out later this week, Chvrches have brought their creative operation back fully in-house. All 10 songs were written and produced by Chvrches and Chvrches alone; the only exception is a writing credit for Robert Smith on “How Not To Drown,” a duet between Mayberry and the legendary Cure frontman that fares far better than her dreary encounter with Berninger on Love Is Dead‘s “My Enemy.” Cook and Doherty handled all the mixing too. The results of this retrenchment are remarkable. Screen Violence finds Chvrches refocused and reinvigorated, back in touch with that old spark but not stuck in the past. They have figured out how to evolve their signature sound without compromising their essential appeal. If you’ve ever enjoyed their music, it’s time to tune back in.

It’s an exhilarating album, but it came from a dark place — specifically, the internet. The title plays off age-old concerns about the psychological impact of violence in TV, movies, and video games, but Mayberry’s new songs are more specifically concerned with the effects of living our lives online, consuming a steady diet of horrific news and toxic discourse as mediated by our devices. This has been an increasingly common concern since the rise of smartphones and social media, but as an outspoken woman in a famous band, Mayberry has seen the worst of it. She was already feeling burned out and disillusioned after spending the better part of a decade bombarded by unsolicited opinions, insults, and even death threats. Then, just as Chvrches were getting started on the album, the pandemic hit, and screens became many people’s only point of contact with the outside world. Cook, who remains in Glasgow, was forced to work remotely with his LA-based bandmates. Not only is the album about screens, it was largely created through screens. It’s a conceit that ran the risk of feeling doubly played out: yet another treatise on the destructive impact of the internet, delivered via yet another “quarantine album.” But the music here is too impassioned and immediate to be shrugged off as Everything Now-style hectoring. Chvrches somehow managed to make an album about the destructive impact of technology feel fresh and vital at this late date.

Where Love Is Dead dealt with the quest for hope in an increasingly dark world, Screen Violence is about fighting to even survive. The album is strewn with regrets, nightmares, death, even a couple references to suicide. One song evokes the horror-movie trope of the “final girl,” the one who makes it out alive but traumatized and splattered in blood, as Mayberry airs out her self-doubt: “I should quit, maybe go get married… And I wonder if I should’ve changed my accent, tried to make myself more attractive.” Near the beginning of the album, before the glow-stick synths pile up and the surging beat achieves liftoff, she sings, “I guess I have to try/ It’s the art of gettin’ by.” Near the end, against a sparse live-band arrangement that finds the band members returning to their pre-Chvrches roots in Scotland’s indie rock scene, she laments, “I drink and I think too much/ I should quit one of the two.” In between she serves up the most acute and vulnerable writing of her career, vivid and emotionally raw. Where the hooks on Love Is Dead singles “Get Out” and “Never Say Die” felt lazy and overly repetitive, similar refrains like “You still matter!” and “I feel like I’m losing my mind!” brim with urgency here. Her melodies have never been sharper.

Cook and Doherty’s production, meanwhile, pulls off the kind of coherent sonic expansion the band aimed for but fell short of last time around. Screen Violence presents an overall darker, more aggressive spin on the gleaming synthpop the band made its name on, while also deploying the most diverse set of sounds on a Chvrches album to date. Some of it sounds like monolithically huge rave bangers gone nuclear, which seems like it must have been a difficult needle to thread without tipping over into cheese; in particular “He Said She Said” and “Violent Delights” inch perilously close to epic YouTube preroll music in the beginning but, upon the addition of Mayberry’s brightly beaming voice, end up feeling overblown in a good way. Other songs clear out space in the mix and weave in elements of goth, post-punk, industrial, and even hip-hop. A heavy bassline and crushing dystopian-wasteland boom-bap drums power “How Not To Drown,” while “Good Girls” pairs chopped, processed vocals out of the School Of Seven Bells playbook with a hard-slapping industrial beat a la Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer.” An influx of guitars lends pleasing new textures to their palate; “Final Girl” in particular ends up sounding like an alternate-universe “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” melancholic yet still buoyant in its own way.

On “California,” another one of those tracks that feels like classic Chvrches despite foregrounding guitars in unprecedented ways, Mayberry builds to climactic epiphany: “No one ever tells ya there’s freedom in failure.” It’s easy to imagine this as both a reflection on Love Is Dead‘s misfortunes and a eureka moment powering Screen Violence‘s success. This does not sound like another crossover attempt; it sounds like a band having fun exploring and experimenting, pushing themselves to make the best record they can make. Rather than catering to the trends of the moment — the wispy minimalist pop girls, the pop-punk hybridizers, the disco revivalists, whatever — the band has unlocked new dimensions within their own sound. Rather than turning to interlopers, they’ve trusted their own instincts. Don’t be surprised if Chvrches start making converts again with this one.

CHART WATCH

Billie Eilish holds on to #1 on the Billboard 200 for a third straight week. Billboard reports that Happier Than Ever logged 60,000 equivalent album units, including 23,000 in sales. It’s the second album of 2021 to spend three weeks atop the chart following Morgan Wallen’s Dangerous: The Double Album. Eilish narrowly defeats Doja Cat’s Planet Her, which had been tipped by industry publication HITS Daily Double to reach #1 this week, but which finishes with 59,000 units.

After Olivia Rodrigo, the Kid Laroi, and Wallen comes a #6 debut for Dan + Shay’s Good Things via 33,000 units and 12,000 in sales, matching the career chart peak they set with 2018’s self-titled album. $uicideboy$ enter at #7 with 32,000 units and 6,000 in sales for Long Term Effects Of Suffering, their best-charting effort to date. After Lil Baby and Lil Durk’s joint album at #8 comes a #9 debut for the Killers’ Pressure Machine, with 26,000 units, 22,000 of them via sales. Dua Lipa rounds out the top 10.

The top of the Hot 100 also remains unchanged for a third straight week, as the Kid Laroi and Justin Bieber’s “Stay” stays at #1. Ed Sheeran’s “Bad Habits” rises to a new #2 peak, bumping Olivia Rodrigo’s “good 4 u” down to #3. Lizzo and Cardi B’s “Rumors” debuts at #4; according to Billboard it’s the third top-10 hit for Lizzo and the 10th for Cardi, as well as Lizzo’s highest-debuting single to date. The rest of the top 10: Doja Cat and SZA’s “Kiss Me More” at #5, Dua Lipa and DaBaby’s “Levitating” at #6, Lil Nas X and Jack Harlow’s “Industry Baby” at #7, BTS’ “Butter” at #8, Olivia Rodrigo’s “deja vu” at #9, and Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” at #10.

POP FIVE

Ed Sheeran – “Visiting Hours”

Shawn Mendes – “Summer Of Love” (Feat. Tainy)
I was all ready to shout “Summer is almost over Shawn!” until that chorus hit and I realized this was an exercise in wistfully looking back: “It was the summer of love.” I love how minimal this is and that finicky elastic guitar sound Tainy put behind the chorus. It’s also tripping me out to hear former 14-year-old prodigy Shawn Mendes singing, “For a couple of months we felt like we were 18.” He’s still 18 to me!

Alesso & Marshmello – “Chasing Stars” (Feat. James Bay)
This literally sounds like pop’s current rock resurgence fading back into a corny EDM phase.

Surfaces – “Sheesh!” (Feat. Tai Verdes)
A little bit circa-2011 Big Sean, a little bit circa-2016 Chance The Rapper, with all the contagious fun and off-putting cornball energy that implies.

Dream & Alec Benjamin – “Change My Clothes”
I don’t know what’s weirder: that Twitch streamers are really out here releasing singles with B-list pop singers now, or that the results are listenable.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Britney Spears explained why she’s been posting so many topless photos on Instagram. [TMZ]
  • Here’s a teaser of Lorde and Jack Antonoff covering Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn,” from Brazilian TV. [Twitter]
  • Ed Sheeran shared the tracklist for his new album =, out 10/29. [Twitter]
  • “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” rapper Silento was indicted on murder charges. [NBC]
  • Jay-Z and Beyoncé will star in a new Tiffany & Co. commercial with a never-before-seen Basquiat painting. [WWD]
  • Taylor Swift joined TikTok. [TikTok]
  • Kelsea Ballerini covered Swift oldie “Teardrops On My Guitar” opening for Jonas Brothers. [YouTube]
  • Lil Nas X, who once worked at Taco Bell, has been named Chief Impact Officer for the brand. [AdWeek]
  • Camila Cabello, Lil Nas X, Lorde, Machine Gun Kelly, and Olivia Rodrigo will perform at the MTV VMAs on 9/12. [MTV]
  • Nelly will headline an episode of CMT Crossroads (the first hip-hop artist to do so) with Kane Brown, Florida Georgia Line, Blanco Brown, and BRELAND on 9/1. [CMT]
  • Maren Morris guest hosted Jimmy Kimmel Live!; here’s her monologue. [YouTube]
  • On 9/2 Maroon 5 will be the first major US act to perform in Canada since the pandemic began. [Billboard]
  • Sam Hunt pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor DUI charge from 2019 and will spend 48 hours in the “alternate sentencing facility” DUI Education Centers. [Tennessean]
  • The Weeknd bought a a $70M mansion in Bel Air. [WSJ]
  • BTS cancelled their Map Of The Soul Tour due to the evolving COVID situation. [Twitter]
  • Kylie Jenner is expecting a second baby with Travis Scott. [Rap-Up]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME

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