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Scottish synth-pop outfit CHVRCHES managed to carve out a space in the early 2010s alternative pop scene that was uniquely their own, and having successfully skirted second album syndrome with 2016’s glittery, dynamic Every Open Eye, return with the charmingly-titled Love Is Dead. Teaming up with Greg Kurstin, the producer who was instrumental (no pun intended) in helping Ellie Goulding transition from offbeat electropop artist to more palatable popstar and who is behind many of radio darlings Sia and Adele’s biggest hits, the band is clearly aiming for mass appeal. It is an album peppered with “nevers,” “forevers” and “carefuls;” the cynicism of the title is reflected in song after song ruminating on disintegrating relationships and attempts to build up an all-around sense of disenchantment and paranoia.
The gorgeous album opener, “Graffiti,” is arguably the best track on the record, painting wonderfully vibrant images of teenagers etching their names in hearts, doused in a cinematic eighties sentiment and neon. How overwhelming and dramatic everything feels when you are young is urgently communicated by lead vocalist Lauren Mayberry, whose voice is simultaneously full of a detectable world-weariness, as she laments that “time to kill was always an illusion.”
Elsewhere, the album’s lyrical content often lacks the specificity that would give the stories they are trying to tell the same emotional potency. Vague phrases are stuck together on tracks like “Forever” (“Savour the pain / I don’t expect you to release me / Jumping the gun / Holding my tongue / I’d never ask you to forgive me”) and the result is a song that does not have much to offer in the way of insights into the kind of crumbling relationship it seeks to describe. Darker tones are swirled into the song’s sheen, however, by the entrance of an elegiac guitar line towards the end that adds a murkier, more interesting dimension. Something similar occurs when lead single “Get Out” unexpectedly morphs into fatalistic reverberations as it draws to a close, and when the melody of “My Enemy” (a mostly bland track featuring Matt Berninger of The National that falls short of bringing the caustic commentary and measured tenebrosity characteristic of said group’s music) momentarily curls in on itself in the chorus before venomously lashing out again.
Much of Love Is Dead feels lacklustre and sees the trio all too frequently fall prey to the allure of hyper-simple, formulaic choruses; the more repetitive moments of the album demonstrate that love unfortunately is not the only thing that is dead. “Miracle” bears a wince-inducing resemblance to something Imagine Dragons would put out, and try as one might, it is difficult not to immediately dismiss “God’s Plan,” which has sadly also been the case with Martin Doherty’s stints as main-vocalist on their previous albums. “Never Say Die” is stronger and achieves something of the quality of monumentality of earlier CHVRCHES’ hits (such as “The Mother We Share,” “Recover” and “Clearest Blue”), in that it embraces how creative one can be with synths (and it is when the band does this that it is at its best), with restless, razor sharp electronic patterns and shards of luminosity that explode and are crushed into a dazzling minute-long outro.
“Graves” is another high-octane highlight. Mayberry recently criticised a review of the album for reductively referring to its political moments as “fight songs for #TheResistance.” And while it is true that chart songs that try to tackle the political are often overly-simplistic (see: “Change” from Charlie Puth’s new album, which includes such penetrating lyrics as “why can’t we just get along?”) CHVRCHES’ efforts here actually do have a certain degree of subtlety. “Deliverance,” in the same vein as Paramore’s “Playing God,” examines false virtue and the hypocrisy of the pious, and its menacing verses are very promising, however it loses momentum when it reaches the chorus and fails to go that extra mile to really rip things apart. “Heaven/Hell” is not as interesting as it wants to be or as edgy as that forward slash suggests it will be; the religious metaphors are not really delved into and remain superficial.
The haunting penultimate track,“ii,” shows no sign of the kind of uplifting conclusion that albums usually try to progress towards, with macabre chords on an out-of-tune piano and indistinguishable words roiling underneath. It melts into the muted, manic “Wonderland,” in which Mayberry sings “you tell me that we’ll be alright, but I don’t know if you’re right.” While CHVRCHES seem to have sacrificed their willingness to go to weird places on this project in order to make it more easily digestible than previous releases, bursts of colour make Love Is Dead an energising listen. There is something nice and even comforting about how this album doesn’t try to force itself to come to a hopeful resolution the way many do; it doesn’t try to shove an optimistic message down our throats. The disillusionment that pervades the entire album doesn’t really let up at the end, as the last song is eked out with a scratchy discordance.