Wednesday, September 30, 2015

album review: 'every open eye' by CHVRCHES

For me, this is one of the big ones.

See, I didn't expect much when I first planned to cover the debut album from Chvrches back in 2013. I had heard the gleaming, early-80s synthpop with gleaming high synths against spiky drum machines and distorted beats that seemed to careen off of modern indie pop on the strident vocals of Lauren Mayberry and while I suspected I'd like it, I didn't know how much. And yet at the end of 2013, The Bones of What You Believe landed on my year-end list, mostly buoyed by surprisingly tight songwriting and thematic cohesion.

Fast forward to now and the highly anticipated sophomore follow-up to that synthpop heavy-hitter... but let's be honest here, Chvrches is stepping onto a different playing field. While there were a fair share of releases inspired by 80s synthpop that dropped in 2013, the past year has given us a huge cross-section of synthesizer-driven indie pop, and with the success of Taylor Swift's 1989 and 'Shut Up And Dance' by Walk The Moon, you could argue it's gone outright mainstream. And that's before we even take into account the indie scene, where acts like Lower Dens and The Wombats have released some of the strongest records of the year and others like Metric or even Carly Rae Jepsen aren't far behind. And sure, Chvrches being great songwriters gave them an advantage, but I was curious to see how they could push their sound in a fresh direction that'd enable them to stand out, especially after a few years of intense touring. Did they pull it off on Every Open Eye?

Well, here's the thing: the more I've listened through this album the less I consider it a 'fresh' direction so much as a much sharper, more focused and refined version of their first record, tightening instrumentally on the pop sound that gave them so much success on the road and lyrically... well, we'll get to it. So duh, of course this album is great, but I can see some people definitely thinking it's more of the same - but again, the nuance is in the details, and said details are enough to make this easily my favourite synthpop album thus far in 2015. Yes, better than Glitterbug by The Wombats, better than Escape From Evil by Lower Dens, it's that potent. 

And the funny thing is that so many of the key ingredients remain in place from The Bones Of What You Believe. Of course Lauren Mayberry is going to sound great, her strident tones never needing pitch correction or added reverb to have potent presence in a pretty dense and crowded mix - forceful without needing to be raw, vibrant without needing to oversell it. But this record shows more sides to Mayberry's personality: she's just as assertive but she opens up more of her upper range, her more vulnerable and explicitly feminine range coming in, which renders the contrast all the more stark and potent. Hell, even though they use less of him here, Martin Doherty has improved as a more expressive singer as well, and his midpoint track 'High Enough To Carry You Over' operates as a much needed midpoint step to humanize the narrative arc of the record.

But before we start delving into that, let's talk about the instrumentation and production - and at first you'd think that not much had really changed. The layers of synthesizers are still broad, buzzy sprays of sharpened synth that spark and careen off each other, with razor sharp cracking beats and fluttering cascades of gleaming treble keys. And yet for as much as this album draws back to the early 80s in the metallic tones, there's so much life and energy poured into the quicker tempos and harmonies that there's hardly anything mechanical about it. Mayberry has drawn the comparison of this record to being 'emo in disguise', and I believe it for more reasons than one, because you can look to the frenetic pace of the underground emo acts in the mid-to-late 90s and see the common ground, swapping distortion and recklessness for tightly honed wiry synth progressions and backgrounds that skitter and swell with life. And I can't tell you how well the production balances these tones, mostly by playing off natural harmonies across synth lines, syncopating the most prominent notes with the beats while letting the background melody subtly augment the swell of the mix - one of the reasons why CHVRCHES songs can feel busy, but never really cluttered or dissonant. And in contrast with most synthpop bands, they don't hesitate to flip the typical arrangement and opt for a quicker low-end tempo than the melodies on top, the most obvious coming in how that bass and tight beat roils beneath the breezy, mid-80s synth line on 'Make Them Gold'. And I'd be remiss not to mention the more pronounced R&B and modern pop influences, from the damp wiry sound of 'Leave A Trace', to the ebbing swells of mid-range synth against the great groove of 'High Enough To Carry You Over', the scratchy beat against the burbling ascending progression on 'Down Side Of Me' that would have had the most tender chorus on the record if it wasn't for the heartbreaking closer 'After Glow', which relies on trace organ flutters in a starkly empty mix to emphasize that loneliness. Of course, what CHVRCHES does best is make cascading, sparking synth pop songs like the opener 'Never Ending Circles' or the brittle galloping sprint of 'Keep You On My Side', or the soaring Owl City-esque vibrancy of 'Empty Threat' that features one of the most infectious choruses of this year with a great subtle bass rollick or the great melodic groove on 'Playing Dead'. And again, you can draw the comparison to early Depeche Mode easily, but as CHVRCHES has always made more earnest, colourful music, even in their early days.

And the other big difference is the lyrics and themes. Now I've always been a fan of CHVRCHES' songwriting, and that's mostly because they write very human, very flawed characters. Sure, the opening tracks describe toxic relationships that are on the verge of self-destructing - or are already dead and still moving, like on 'Keep You On My Side' - they realize it requires two for these situations to continue. And while it's implied many times the guy is a manipulative, lying dick who is quite literally symbolized as a hurricane on 'Clearest Blue', Lauren sees herself coming back, because she's just as flawed. Note the usage of the phrase 'this time' on 'Never Ending Circles', which implies said circles are bound to keep on spinning. It humanizes the harshness of 'Leave A Trace', where she knows the guy might spread lies about their relationship and bury the rest, but warns him to leave a 'trace of a man' in the mess. Hell, it's one of the reasons that CHVRCHES can get away with 'Make Them Gold', a song about taking the hardest and smallest moments of our lives - our best moments, whether we want to think so or not - and turn them into gold.

And then midway through the record, the narrative shifts. Right after we get the snapshot from the guy's point of view on 'High Enough To Carry You Over' - which really does come across as bitter and petulant and yet realistically heartbroken - Mayberry reconsiders on 'Empty Threat'. Maybe she can back empty threats, rebuild things, because weren't things better in the relationship? So even despite the storm coming in and the voices whispering 'I gotta tell you', likely the moment the guy might have ended it himself, they try again. And it goes exactly as bad as you'd expect, as Mayberry tries to give even more and drop her confrontational attitude until it's clear her partner was never willing to compromise in the same way. So she finally puts an end to it and is left alone on 'Afterglow', where she reflects on the mess of it all and wishes for the rose-covered afterglow to only capture the best memories... and yet there's the knowledge that she can't really do that, because she'll end up returning to it. It's a song that leaves the wound bleeding with Mayberry whispering she's given up all she can, she wants to forget and yet she never really can - no creating gold out of this one.

Now if some of this reminds you all of the thematic arc that ran through The Bones Of What You Believe, I doubt that's a coincidence - only while the revelation that finally punctured the self-interested arrogance of the protagonist on that record gave some form of closure, this doesn't, and hits all the harder for it, and reads as all the more human. And while I won't say this record is perfect - 'Clearest Blue' can meander a bit after the synth crescendo, and perhaps a little more nuance could have fleshed out the story of 'Playing Dead' and 'Bury It' more, delving into why this guy would return to being a manipulative jackass when she comes back beyond just opportunity - the story and arc it tells is incredibly potent, and is paired with some of the most powerful compositions of CHVRCHES' career. I'm not sure it'll be enough to sell people who were put off by the strident hammer of synths on their first album, but I will say there's a greater breadth of sonic influences on this album that leads it to feeling varied and yet still remarkably cohesive. In other words, this record is goddamn excellent, an improvement upon their debut, and a 9/10 from me with the highest of recommendations. Yeah, I know, two in one week, but when a synthpop album hits with this sort of impact, it should be praised, and despite the glut in the genre right now, CHVRCHES still manages to stand out in the best possible way.

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