On their fourth studio album, Screen Violence (coincidentally an alternate name for the band) outlines Glasgow-based trio CHVRCHES’ attitude around the phrase. Involving everything from the band’s affinity for the horror movie aesthetic to literal death threats frontwoman Lauren Mayberry has received throughout the band’s touring of their previous album Love is Dead, the album explores a much more vulnerable side that pushes their synth-pop sound without foregoing their own signature.
Kicking off the record is “Asking for a Friend,” a track which sets the tone for the rest of the album, oscillating between heavily fragile and sharply cynical. Lauren Mayberry’s delivery of the hook “I’m asking for a friend” at the end of the chorus has so many layers to it that it’s not hard to miss it completely on a first pass. The double meaning in the isolation that came during the inception of the album and the hesitance of the original implication of the phrase lends itself handily to the overarching theme. Along with fellow band member Martin Doherty, Lauren has been based out of California since a little before the pandemic, with Iain Cook rounding things out remaining in Glasgow. The band recorded and worked on most of the album over multiple video sessions throughout 2020, further feeding into that sense of isolation that simply wouldn’t have the same resonance otherwise, and a generally great inciting incident that further tracks follow up on.
Initially presenting as a wistful ballad with its dreamy chord resolutions and syncopated cantering rhythm, “California” reads like a denouement to a young adult film. However, reading into the lyrical content begins to betray that notion, where Mayberry begins to lament what her move to LA has done to her mental state. The band have been exceedingly self-aware of the hypocrisy that comes with California’s reputation, highlighted in lines such as “No one ever warns ya/You’ll die in California” and “Count the debt, count the tears/Count the truths and all of my fears.” Firmly disillusioned with all that comes with California being yet another place on the map, exacerbated by the ever-present pressure that comes with everyone around you seeming to be in some sort of competition, it’s no surprise that any latent feelings of homesickness can mutate into something vastly more sinister once you feel as though you’re not keeping up with your environment.
“Violent Delights”, a near-tentative Shakespeare reference on Mayberry’s part, functions in one regard as Doherty and Cook paying respects to Essex-based dance music band The Prodigy in an instrumental fashion while bearing furthermore vulnerable and tormented vocals from Mayberry herself. Following a growing dither in the intro, the track transitions into a breakbeat which contributes to the general sense of anxiety and evokes somewhat of a flight response, as it were, for the duration. Lauren employs the evocative nature of the title to detail actual nightmares she had experienced while on tour and makes use of the empty space to further add to that sense of anxiety building. The dread that would seep in and hold her hostage even in her waking hours lends to the horror aesthetic such that her vocals on the verse come off as nearly supernatural, calling on Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray to feel as though this is a message being delivered by a grief-stricken wight or otherwise ghostly creature.
Being the only feature on the album, Robert Smith lends his sempiternal timbre to the rhythmically heavy and sombre “How Not to Drown”, one of the lead singles from the album. Taking inspiration from the story of Virginia Woolf, as well as her own propensity for water imagery in her writing, the song handles a lot of Mayberry’s doubts and reservations about remaining a member of CHVRCHES amidst the immense negative attention she’s received primarily from, well, simply being a female in a band. Lauren’s tone throughout takes on that of a nihilistic public figure, weary of the onus that comes with being a frontwoman and everything that may imply. The baggage she had grown to be encumbered with, the dissonant attention that despite her agile wit is not something that goes untapped after so long. Robert Smith’s contribution almost seems to foil that perspective, bringing a similarly bitter tone but possessing more indignance, speaking almost in retrospect to bring forth the attitude that it’s not something to be downtrodden on account of, but something to use as fuel to prove any doubters wrong (“I’m writing a chapter on what to do after they dig you up/On what to do after you grew to hate what you used to love”). With the song being as emotionally wrought as it is by default (however removed from the actual release, time-wise), having one of the band’s musical heroes offer such an uplifting sentiment communicates almost as a passing of the torch, or a mentor acknowledging the growth of a pupil. A discarding of what should be and a galvanising of the more authentic.
It can be said that the argument against technology or “screens”, if you will, is somewhat of a tired one. Namely in a social sense, there’s a lot to be said about how it separates people, or enables these darker or more latent personas to emerge. CHVRCHES manage to sidestep many of the tropes surrounding this subject while still delivering with a transparency and vision to assuage a lot of the anxieties that came about due to the pandemic while not being as rigidly conceived as a result of it.