Tuesday, May 29, 2018

album review: 'love is dead' by chvrches

I was worried about this record.

Actually, 'worried' isn't quite the right terminology there, because that implies a level of uncertainty that something wouldn't turn out to the standards that we all expect and hope from CHVRCHES, who at least for me have hit two line drives out of the park with their first two albums. Many cite The Bones Of What You Believe as the stronger release with its sharp, garish early-80s synths, but I actually stand behind their follow-up Every Open Eye as the better record: the gloss has been buffed to a mirror shine, the lyrics focused the abstract narrative into a more emotionally nuanced package, and the hooks were easily among the best in synthpop. Both records would wind up making year-end lists for me, but it was Every Open Eye that broke my top ten, and for damn good reason.

But I did have a concern coming out of that sophomore record, and that was, in essence, CHVRCHES had just copied their own formula, including much of the thematic arc from their debut, and I at least had a concern they could fall into that same trap yet again... until I saw the production credits for this record. A switch in labels put them with producer Greg Kurstin, the first time any of their records had not been produced entirely in-house... which sure, could net them a very different sound, but Kurstin has had a bad habit of suffocating his mixes in reverb and even if CHVRCHES was acknowledging they were heading towards conventionality, it would require a very delicate balance to do so without compromising their sound and style. But hey, if this was their big pop swing, they had been primed for this off of Every Open Eye, so Love Is Dead might just work, right?

Well... yes and no. Here's the thing: there's a baseline of quality that comes with a CHVRCHES record in terms of their sound and performance that will naturally work for me, taking their proto-Stock, Aitken & Waterman synthpop into content that consistently punches higher than many in their genre, all helped along by Lauren Mayberry's stridently earnest presence. But at the same time, if there's a record that shows CHVRCHES paradoxically changing too much in some directions and not enough in others, it's Love Is Dead, which I'd hesitate to call as much of an open play for the mainstream as some have implied - normally to win that crowd you manufacture sweeter hooks and buff the synthesizers even cleaner, not devolve into the more turgid sound you get across a surprising amount of this record. And yet again, it's not enough to make this a bad or even mediocre record, but it is enough to make is a considerable step back from what made CHVRCHES so damn compelling in the first place.

And spoiler alert, a significant chunk of the blame falls on Greg Kurstin - and while to his credit he doesn't suffocate this record in reverb, the telltale signs of his production choices are all over this project and can't help but diminish CHVRCHES' sound. See, for as much as critics have ranted that CHVRCHES can feel kind of one-dimensional with the sharp, glittery spikes of synthesizers that feel imported from between '82 and '86, what worked is that their melodic grooves and interplay were always at the forefront and carried a lot of tone - they might not have modulated as much, but the reason those hooks were so damn sticky was because the foundational synth melody took precedence over everything, especially the percussion. So logically the next best thing is for Greg Kurstin to pile on buzzy waves that carry more texture than tone and then push his drums and percussion more to the front, not only muting some of those brighter synth lines but de-emphasizing their presence in the larger mix - in other words, do exactly what he's done but with less reverb to a slew of acts across all genres! And it's all over this record: you have songs like 'Forever' and 'Graves' that start with a promising progression, but before long we get waves of murky, buzzy midrange texture and overblown drums, serving to turn the song into a gigantic amorphous mass rather than something with greater tune. And in theory I get why this makes sense: CHVRCHES has never been a subtle band, so why not pump up their sound to its larger size yet - but if you're going to drown out the mid-to-high synths that carry your most recognizable counterpoint to Lauren Mayberry's vocals, the songs just won't feel as memorable. Hell, as much as I think 'Wonderland' is the best track on the record for at least keeping the pre-chorus progression and hook pretty vibrant, it still feels overweight and lumbering on that chorus, which really compromises any sense of greater groove.

Of course, that's before you get to the synth choices themselves - the oily, gurgling, often minor-key tones that if they don't sound like they're sliding off-key they just lend many of these songs a sourness that's hard to escape - and what's alarming is that this happens on the few tracks CHVRCHES produced themselves, like 'God's Plan' and throughout parts of the more minimalistic 'Really Gone'. Hell, you'd think this might actually be a good choice opposite Matt Berninger of The National on 'My Enemy', but what could have had potential as a toxic back-and-forth dead relationship winds up impressively inert, making you wonder why Matt Doherty didn't just take the microphone like he did on 'God's Plan'. But the production around Lauren Mayberry doesn't help either - many of the mixes wind up doubling down on her multi-tracked vocals to carry the melody the synths would normally supplement, but in order to compete with the handclaps and heavier drums her vocals are overdubbed to a point of crispness that not only kills any hope of greater subtlety but also places her contrast with the sharper percussion lines, leaving any melody to scrabble for air in the background. Now that's not saying there aren't hooks that fight through all of this - with a better mix I could definitely hear the potential in 'Forever' and 'Graves' and perhaps even 'Haven/Hell', so maybe live they'll work, but even then they don't come close to the best of the previous two records.

And the lyrics... well, credit where it's due, CHVRCHES do seem like they're stepping away from the template or traditional arc of their previous records, specifically with the sharper socially conscious subtext rising to the forefront, like on the critique of those who are blinded by their beliefs on 'Deliverance' to the harm around them, or 'Graves' in those who have the privilege to ignore real problems swelling up. And since CHVRCHES has always been intensely self-aware, 'Wonderland' serves as a great closing moment where Lauren realizes she needs to pull her head out of the clouds and refocus. But what becomes frustrating about Love Is Dead is less that it's repeating a thematic arc and more like it doesn't have much of one at all - the break-up songs are at the centerpoint and are generally well-written, but they feel a lot more scattered and focused on the toxic situation rather than a deeper sense of introspection or reflection, which can feel a lot shallower as a result. And sure, songs like 'My Enemy' and 'Forever' and the melancholy of 'Really Gone' do have some balanced weight, but when you set them opposite hooks that lean really heavily on repeated phrases or syllables, it feels like the biggest play for pop radio came in stripping back the lyrics to a more basic form, or at the very least making individual cuts feel more accessible... which again, wasn't really needed, especially as CHVRCHES have been plenty direct before!

But as a whole... I'm not going to mince words, this was a big disappointment for me, and while Greg Kurstin is getting a lot of the blame for pushing a production style that didn't flatter the group, they hold some significant responsibility too for flattening their sound and stripping out the melodic flair that made them so compelling in the past. And with less interesting lyrics and hooks, even Lauren Mayberry can't save much of this one, which is getting a strong 6/10 and only a recommendation for the fans - but fair warning, this will not be as good or memorable as what their first two records. Not bad, again - this is still a decent listen, but I reminded way too much of The Wombats' last synthpop record from earlier this year Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life, which also tried to blow up their sound for more sweep and presence... and wound up all the more shallow and forgettable as a result. Really, both groups really deserved better.

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