“If you’re gonna do something that’s that annoying, you have to be able to back it up.”
Johnny Jewel was in not-so-rare form when he talked to Pitchfork in mid-2012, only a few months after Chromatics’ magnum opus Kill For Love was released 10 years ago this weekend. “I didn’t exactly know what the final record was going to be up until the last minute,” he said. “No one even had copies of it except me. Everyone was bugging me, but I had to have my moment with it. I didn’t want to hear what anyone thought of it.” Jewel, who became Chromatics’ figurehead for most of their time in the spotlight, didn’t give many interviews, but the ones he did do were filled with equal parts bullshitting and profundity.
“I could have banged out 10 tracks of pop, but then our freedom to experiment in the studio would be done, because I knew this record was gonna be really visible,” he went on. “I always want a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down with our records. I want to have a lasting relationship with our fans while challenging them; give them what they want sometimes, and then give them something that they don’t know they want.”
It’s interesting to revisit quotes like these in the wake of Chromatics’ breakup last year, in which the band’s other three members — Adam Miller, Ruth Radelet, and Nat Walker — issued a statement that they were done, noticeably without Jewel’s involvement. The band has been, at least in public, tight-lipped about the circumstances surrounding the group’s eventual demise. But reading between the lines, it’s easy to understand how one might get fed up with the constant state of flux that Chromatics seemed to exist in, largely due to Jewel’s monomaniacal and possessive tendencies. After Kill For Love was released, Jewel went on a seven-year campaign teasing a new album, Dear Tommy, that never arrived. A different new album, Closer To Grey, did — and it was quite good — but the ceaseless tinkering took its toll on both their fans and the other members of the band.
Jewel was, at least, right about Kill For Love being Chromatics’ most visible project yet. They were coming off a year in which they became the poster children for a certain brand of shadowy chic. Kill For Love was just one point in a continuum of events that elevated Chromatics’ stature. There was Drive, which came out the year before and spawned a hit soundtrack that prominently featured Chromatics’ “Tick Of The Clock.” Jewel was also in talks to write the film’s score — the job ended up going to Cliff Martinez — and, with bandmate Nat Walker, he ended up turning some of what he had made into the Symmetry album Themes For An Imaginary Film, which came out a few months before Kill For Love. A few months after, Italians Do It Better — the label that Jewel co-founded with Mike Simonetti, who would leave IDIB in 2014 citing a flurry of bad business practices — released After Dark 2, a compilation that is home to some of the label’s most enduring songs: Glass Candy’s “Warm In The Winter,” Chromatics’ own “Cherry.”
That’s a lot of activity for a band that was already a decade into their career. Chromatics started in 2002 as Adam Miller’s solo project; a rotating group of Pacific Northwest musicians contributed to the first two albums, 2003’s Chrome Rats Vs. Basement Rutz (which was produced by Jewel) and 2004’s Plaster Hounds. The sound, a sort of scurrying post-punk, was quite different from what Chromatics would end up becoming most known for when its lineup changed once again (and for good) in 2005, solidifying around Miller, Jewel, Radelet, and Walker. With 2007’s Night Drive, they — along with the rest of their Italians Do It Better cohort, which included multiple Jewel-affiliated projects — spearheaded a whole vibe: music for late-night joyrides around slick city freeways. Inspired by Italo disco, giallo film scores, and experimental composers like John Cage and Glenn Branca, the Chromatics sound was impossibly cool, a hypnotizing allure that’s hard to pull away from.
With 2012’s Kill For Love, the band created their defining document. The album is ambitious and epic in scope. At 90 minutes with the closing soundscape “No Escape,” listening to it in full takes about the time it would to enter a REM cycle. It’s the rare album that benefits from an extended runtime, allowing the band and the listener enough space to enter a sort of somnambulant haze. Split between structured pop songs and gliding interstitials, it works both as pleasant background music and music that you can truly, deeply lose yourself in. The band’s affinity for vintage instruments and electronics lends it a timeless quality. “With Kill For Love, I wanted to represent the guitar, since it’s what I consider to be a primitive instrument,” Jewel once said. “Us going back to a certain caveman state of mind — getting back to the root of why we make music.” There are certainly a lot of guitars throughout Kill For Love, spindly and sordid and sky-reaching, but the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Kill For Love are the blooming synths, the plodding pianos, the empty air and environmental decay that the band immerses themselves in at every turn.
Also inextricable from the Chromatics experience is Ruth Radelet, who brings warmth and humanity to the band’s often icy palate. As the group’s main vocalist, she is feverish on the album’s stunning opening cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black),” which hints at some of the folkier inspirations that Radelet pulls from in her writing and delivery. She’s cited Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, and Tom Waits as her favorite songwriters, in addition to the band’s more obvious sonic touchstones like the Jesus And Mary Chain, New Order, and the Velvet Underground. Her presence is instrumental to the Chromatics’ success, and some of her strongest moments on Kill For Love come towards its start. I love the way she delivers the chorus of the album’s title track with a singsongy, detached urgency: “I can’t remember if I like what I said/ I can’t remember, it went straight to my head/ I kept a bottle by the foot of the bed/ I put a pillow right on top of my head/ But I killed for love.” On “Back To The Grave,” she sings of mothers and fathers and lovers being born, pulsing with the sound of creation. A late-album highlight is the penultimate “The River,” creepy and eerie and wistful as Radelet is stuck in an endless cycle of anticipation: “I take the night train to sky/ Rising up, I close my eyes/ The ground beneath me, dead and dry/ I’m still here, waiting for you.”
Because of its length, Kill For Love has room for a lot of dramatic, show-stopping moments — many parceled out by Radelet, though Miller also gets some shine on the vocoder-slathered “These Streets Will Never Look The Same.” But it also has moments of impeccable stillness, the calm and eye and aftermath of the storm all coming at once. It’s deliciously tense throughout, striking the uneasy, beautiful balance of a score straight out of a thriller movie. It’s no wonder that Chromatics became such a touchstone for a decade’s worth of film music — there’s something about the way the band let each moment breathe that feels impressively cinematic. Kill For Love invites one to partake in a meditative state, stark and exquisite and limitless.
It also was not spared from Jewel’s never-ending touch. There’s at least one version of the album with a different tracklist that dates back to 2010; Kill For Love was originally slated for release on Valentine’s Day 2012 but was pushed back. Per Jewel, he didn’t finalize the songs until three days before release. It’s also worth noting that whatever version of Kill For Love that’s available on streaming services today is not the version of the album that originally came out — some time in the past few years, unexplained, it was changed for a different, often muddier mix. It’s deflating, now that all seems to be said and done, to think about how Chromatics floundered in the wake of their breakthrough, an endless string of broken promises that would eventually lead to the dissolution of the band. Still, Chromatics undoubtedly captured magic with Kill For Love — it’s an album that will stand the test of time. For a band that was so often concerned with the ticking of the clock, they really had a way of making you feel both the crush of time and its infinite possibility.