You might be confused when you hear about a band that names Eurythmics, Death Cab for Cutie, Elliot Smith, and Cyndi Lauper as some of the inspirations for their sound, but CHVRCHES makes it work. Since the Scottish synth-pop trio released their debut album The Bones of What You Believe in 2013, they’ve racked up a ton of critical praise for their combination of layered synth sound, subtly vengeful lyrics, and undeniable pop hooks. On their third album Love is Dead, CHVRCHES kick the pop elements in their sound up a notch, emphasizing lyrical simplicity without losing the power of their soaring, layered instrumentation.
Besides the increased pop feel, Love is Dead marks a new era for the band by being their first album that wasn’t independently produced. Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook, and Martin Doherty worked with producer Greg Kursten to bring their latest work to life, writing and recording most of it while in Los Angeles last year. “It’s a typical Glaswegian thing to do, to feel the most misanthropic and macabre when you’re in the sunniest place on Earth,” lead vocalist Lauren Mayberry joked in an interview with the BBC.
Misanthropic and macabre indeed–Love is Dead is a powerful synth-pop punch of angst and melancholy, of hearts broken, dreams lost, and the associated anger and regret. Opening track “Graffiti” introduces the album, contrasting bright tones with the dissolution of young love. With a chip on her shoulder, Mayberry sings, “When did we move on?/I didn’t feel it, nobody told me.” Poignant lyrics like “I’ve been waiting my whole life to grow old/And now we never will, never will” are presented without pretension, bouncing rhythmically around the song. To have such bright instrumentation emit such melancholy vibes is quite a skill, one that gets flexed a lot on this album.
Lead single “Get Out” builds on what “Graffiti” starts. Hand claps steadily build the song, working the way up to the chorus’s ringing, repetitive release. “[Greg Kursten] doesn’t try to make you write a certain kind of song. He just listens and Jedi puppet masters the best work out of you. The opening synth riff of “Get Out” was the first thing to emerge on our first day in the studio with him,” the band explained in a statement, adding that working with an outside producer helped to push them out of their comfort zone. The song’s emotion is genius in its simplicity, with commanding lines like “Good intentions never good enough.”
While there’s plenty of signature CHVRCHES content on the album, there are a few tracks to note for their shifts in sound. The band takes the tempo down (perhaps a little too much) with “My Enemy,” a collaborative track featuring The National’s Matt Berninger that shows an argument between a couple. Barring their remix of “Bury It” featuring Hayley Williams, a bonus track from the extended edition of Every Open Eye, this is the first time they’ve dueted with another artist on their albums. Then there’s the post-apocalyptic, electronica-ridden “Miracle” has drawn comparisons to The Cardigans, Garbage and the build/drop rhythms of Imagine Dragons songs. Playing with the dynamics of their sound, CHVRCHES also dances out some of the pain, taking their sound to a ‘90s club. The kinetic melody of “Forever” has the band exploring their regret over how a relationship ended, though not the ending itself befitting a sleepover dance party. Mayberry’s vocals take a backseat to the boys’ on “God’s Plan,” a hypnotic techno outlier that would fit perfectly on the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.
While much of this album is about love’s demise, CHVRCHES takes care to delve into some of the issues affecting world politics today. The almost cheerful “Graves” shames those who are ignoring problems like the refugee crisis, referencing literal bodies washing up on the shore. The band doesn’t pull punches with lyrics like, “Oh baby, you can look away/While they’re dancing on our graves,” and Mayberry’s wry “If you don’t have a heart, I can offer you mine/Do you really expect that you will always be fine?” to blast the privilege of those who are unbothered. Knowing Mayberry’s strong stance on issues like sexism in the music industry, this album’s political tilt isn’t a surprise. The entire album culminates in “Wonderland,” a sweeping, powerpop conclusion in which the band commits to striking a balance between the horrors of the world and their dreams. “Can’t live forever with my head in the clouds/Can’t predict the weather with my feet on the ground,” Mayberry sings, explaining the catch-22 of both walks of life–we need to be tapped into our own needs and the needs of others.
When it comes to CHVRCHES , there’s one thing you can count on while listening: catharsis. Shitty breakups, world tragedy, and past regrets are explored with complex, formidable pop melodies tinged with anger and desolation. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, the band described Love is Dead as “the most pop stuff we’ve done and also the most aggressive and vulnerable at the same time. It’s about really leaning into these moments.” Therein lies the beauty of Love is Dead; CHVRCHES’ balance of aggression and vulnerability creates an emotional experience you can’t help but feel with some of this year’s catchiest, most vibrant songs.