Album: The Bones of What You Believe
In Brief: With a haunting undercurrent beneath their deceptively chirpy exterior, the debut from this Scottish synthpop trio makes a solid case for the validity of laptop-driven music.
There are always several breakout bands each year that I kick myself for not paying attention to until the following year, when it’s too late to go back and cram them into the slots they deserve on my year-end lists. Usually I don’t find them this early, though. In the early days of January, with not a lot of exciting new music on the horizon, I noticed Chvrches on a lot of year-end lists, wondered if their mostly keyboard and sample-driven take on synthpop would be up my alley, and decided to give their debut album a go. The Bones of What You Believe may well be one of those “perfect pop albums” that just doesn’t quit – from the delectable melodies of some of its biggest signals, to the dancefloor fury of some of its darker tracks, to the occasional chill moment where a guitar riff or a sea of vocal samples slowly washes over the listener, there are hardly any dull moments throughout its twelve tracks. Their interchangeable dynamic, with confident frontwoman Lauren Mayberry backed by multi-instrumental wizards Iain Cook and Martin Doherty, is intoxicating, and I like that they’re able to change things up by bringing one of the guys up front for a track or two, or for a vocal hook or lyrical snippet in one of her songs. Bands with a woman up front tend to get marketed as “the girl plus some nameless faces” nowadays, and Chvrches has actively resisted this, building a fanbase on the synergy of their performances, not on the potential sex appeal of their frontwoman. (Lauren’s response to rather lewd comments made on social media by some of her supposed “fans” should indicate quite clearly that she’s not interested in playing the sex symbol game.)
If I had to describe the content of Chrvches’ songs, the first thing I would tell you is that they’re definitely not a religious band. The two f-bombs dropped in the lyrics of the two otherwise sweet-sounding opening tracks on this album should tip you off to at least that much. But they’re also not interested in being vulgar or relying on shock factor – dysfunctional relationships seem to take up the bigger slices of the pie, with a few tracks left over for moody navel-gazing and maybe even a bit of genuine sentimentality. It’s one of those things where you might not even realize a song is about something depressing, or perhaps even a bit violent, due to the perky melody and the constant motion of the synths and drum pads. In that sense, their dynamic is much like that of The Echoing Green‘s most recent material – just flip the gender dynamic of that band on its head and you’ve got a reasonably good starting point (though again, without the religious overtones). This is honestly the sort of album that I wish Metric or Lights would make – though it may be a bit too subversive for fans of Lights, I guess. If I’d discovered Chvrches while it was still 2013, I’m almost 100% sure that this album would have ended up in my top five, but getting to it late may have been what I needed, because this album has been seriously brightening up the mild, gloomy, grey season that we here in Los Angeles like to call “winter”.
1. The Mother We Share
Right out of the gate, the group hits us with one of their most memorable pop songs. Snippets of Lauren’s vocals are played back like notes on a keyboards, the stuttering effect providing the song’s main hook. A clap-happy rhythmic intro settles into more of a mid-tempo groove, and suddenly the mood is like a high school dance in a John Hughes movie (an analogy I borrowed from The Hawk in Paris – another worthy musical companion for those who enjoy Chvrches’ style). As sweet and innocent as Lauren’s voice may sound, she’s dealing with some hurt here, or at the very least some strong ambivalence, struggling to keep her mouth shut as she deals with a family member whose actions she finds contemptible. She’s reaching out for comfort, to someone who understands her difficulties with this person, and she doesn’t mince words when they have a moment alone to rehash the situation: “And when it all f*cks up/You put your head in my hands/It’s a souvenir/For when you go-oh-oh-oh.” The way she sings the word “go” at the end of each stanza may be the most addictive part of the song, and it’s interesting to note that these little stick-in-your-head moments engender a sense of easy familiarity in many of their songs, where it’s easy to feel like you “know” the song and you start singing along to it, only to get lost in an unexpectedly wordy chorus. That’s not a bad thing – a lot of artists in this genre rely on abstract or minimal choruses, evoking more of a feeling than telling a narrative, but I get the sense that Chvrches really strives for more detail in their lyrics.
2. We Sink
The second track gets us up to workout speed, synthetic notes bleeping and blooping all up and down the scale, while chopped up vocal samples form one of the guys in the band add to the “busy machine” mood of the song. I made a comment about detailed vs. abstract lyrics a moment ago that I’m about to contradict because the phrases in this song all seem brief and a bit disconnected “We are/I’ve come apart and you made me/Float like/A pretty box of your evil/So tired/So easy, I.” They’re almost My Bloody Valentine-style lyrics, except that there are too many of them and I can actually make out the words. And none of that’s a complaint, really – it doesn’t stop Lauren’s voice from moving the song along smoothly, or the chorus from being incredibly catchy (you’ll be happily singing “I’ll be a thorn in your side, ’til you die!” for way longer than you might have expected). But since I’m rather puzzled over the conflict that this song seems to be about, I enjoy it more for its melody and its intricate production, with its many sounds, both crystal clear and digitally distorted, all mashing up against one another as it confidently churns towards its fist-pumping, crowd-pleasing climax.
This may well be the most candy-coated song on the album – the synths are so bright and spastic that I wouldn’t blame you for thinking I had punked you into listening to the soundtrack from an overly perky anime or something. The genius of it is that it’s matched up with some of the group’s most violent lyrics – they aren’t graphic or anything, but I find it amusingly demented that threats like “I will be a gun and it’s you I’ll come for” are being happily sung over what sounds like it could be your next ringtone. Take a few steps back in the lyrics and you’ll discover the mistreatment that leads to these threats of retribution. “Take a good swing at me and everything is even.” “You stuck in the knife that you held at my back.” (That last one, due to poor enunciation, still sounds to me like she’s singing “You stuck in the knife that you held up my butt”, and yes, I may have the mentality of a 12-year-old, but now you won’t be able to un-hear it. You’re welcome.) The frenetic pace of the song is an eerily good fit for the haunting, repeated phrase “You’d better run”, and I suppose it says something about my changing tastes in music that I can find humor in the tragedy of her chasing this dude down for payback now, when I was so easily offended by songs like the Dixie Chicks‘ “Goodbye Earl” in my younger days.
We get a bit of a breather here in one of the album’s rare chilled-out moments, a song which is quite surprisingly guitar-driven for its first half, not in an “epic riff” sort of way, but in a “grey rainy day” sort of way. The electronic sounds backing it are more damp, perhaps even a bit sticky, if that description makes any sense at all. I could picture obscure groups that I used to like, such as Fold Zandura or Aleixa, coming up with songs like this – it just sort of has that “mid-90s shoegazing meets synthpop” sort of feel to it. What I’ll call the “chorus” doesn’t hit with a huge hook here – it seems like more of a lead-up to a delayed payoff, but it’s tragic nonetheless: “Trade our places, take no chances/Bind me ’til my lips are silent/Stay where you are, ever after/Chasing things that we should run from.” Just as the song reaches its apex of quiet reflection, they trot out the big, glitzy synths and quite unexpectedly, the rest of the song turns into an all-night rave, without losing its focus on its final, defeated mantra: “I’m feeling capable of seeing the end/I’m feeling capable of saying it’s over.” While the song does get lost in a bit of repetition and it’s not quite as brilliant as the ingeniously crafted pop songs that have preceded it, this sort of thing is a welcome change of pace, as it keep the listening experience as a whole from running together, and it reminds us that the group isn’t a one-trick pony.
It was pretty easy for me to settle on this one as an early favorite. Not that several other songs didn’t provide stiff competition – it’s just that this one seems to bleed pure awesomeness, with its big heavy drums and its DJ-spun vocal effects and its huge synth sounds swerving about like hyperactive floodlights on a dance floor. Lauren navigates her way through this one with surprising confidence (not that it was unsurprising elsewhere, but lesser vocalists would easily get drowned in the wall-of-sound production here), shouting out her sweetly melodic propaganda about how she knows what the listener’s darkest desires are and knows how to fulfill them so long as that keeps the band selling units. This is all tongue-in-cheek, of course, perhaps a commentary on the way that female-fronted bands like hers are commonly marketed. It’s almost cruelly prophetic that phrases like “I can call you up/If I feel alone/I can feed your dirty mind/Like I know, like I know what you want” have been taken far too literally and unironically by the seedier side of her fanbase – if you ask me, the underlying intent of the song is to make you feel disgusted by the selling of singers as sex icons.
6. Under the Tide
Martin Doherty takes the mic here for a track that serves as another break from the norm, even though it keeps the tempo up and the album flowing along nicely. I’m beginning to think that he might be the source of the band’s more abstract lyrics while Lauren and/or Iain write the more detailed ones, since all I can really understand of this one is that he’s encouraging someone to keep their head above water and promising to support them as they fight against whatever it is that’s threatening to drown them. Martin’s vocal style is much more the type to blend into the surroundings rather than to pierce straight through them as Lauren does, and as a consequence of this, some listeners who appreciate the female-fronted dynamic may be tempted to skip the two tracks on which he sings lead. But I like versatile bands with multiple vocalists, and while Lauren’s voice is playing a barely-noticeable supporting role here, she lays down some nice keyboard work atop the frothy sea of bubbling synths and elastic bass notes.
Another of the band’s singles is up next, and while this one has the same overall pace and glitzy synth sound to it as “The Mother We Share”, for me it’s probably the weakest track on the album. That might be a weird thing to say when you’ve got the two Martin tracks that aren’t as attention-grabbing as Lauren’s stuff, and when there’s plenty about this one that will have you humming bits of its melody later on… but I don’t know. It’s got one of those choruses that might just have too much to it, taking up more time repeating its many lines of lyrics than the rest of the song does adding new ones. And I’m not big on the stuttered vocal delivery here: “I’ll give you one – more – chance – say/We can change – our – old – ways/And you take – what – you – need/And you know – you – don’t – need me.” The production is still masterful, with the snippets of male backing vocals and a ton of other things going on in both the foreground and background, so I do still enjoy it, but after the second time through that exhaustive chorus, I find myself wanting them to change things up a bit.
8. Night Sky
This may well be the happiest song – no, scratch that, the only happy song – on the album. it’s easy to miss, since the song can feel like more of a pace-keeper between similarly up-tempo songs at first, not sticking out as much as some of the earlier highlights. But I slowly came to realize that this one appealed to me on both a surface level (with both Lauren and Martin contributing to a solid hook with their volleying vocal bits), and on a deeper level in terms of the peaceful, stargazing mood it sets despite its upbeat, danceable nature. The lyrics themselves may be simple, even naively optimistic: “I’m the night-sky/I’m the fire in your eyes/And I want you/Now and for all time.” But there’s something of a deeper solace in the way that its computerized sounds echo off into the clear, wide sky, as if a night spent pondering the constellations has renewed a young couple’s resolve to fight against all of the manipulative family members and B.S. music industry tactics and whatever else threatens to stress them out and turn them against each other. It’s the one moment where the band puts youthful innocence on display without it sounded subverted or corrupted in any way.
The darker rumblings of this song feel like a slow descent into madness – it doesn’t quite register amongst all of the busy-body whirring mechanical sounds at first, but there’s a slight feeling of losing control of one’s sanity as this song descends ever deeper into its firestorm of vintage synths and weird ambiance. It’s also right up there with “Lies” in the department of general badass-ness – easily one of the most arresting tracks on the album, and that’s helped in a big way by the creepy male vocal chant leading into the chorus: “I, I/Hear, hear/Your, your/Breeeeeeeea… thing.” Lauren gawks at her occult-like surroundings with the detached wonder of a curious scientist, and we’re not sure if she’s the charming voice there to lull us into a false sense of security, or the innocent victim being preyed upon by the dark, decaying souls around her. I’ve certainly heard far more messed-up electronic noise from bands like The Flaming Lips and The Knife, so I don’t want to oversell this as anything more than the darker side of synthpop, but this one does manage to strike just the right balance between spine-chilling and addictively fast-paced.
Here, the band brings out a bit of a street-wise backbeat, and Lauren churns up the girlish charm as she navigates through some of the more tongue-twisting lyrics on the album. I mean, they’re not that complicated – it’s just the way she manages to keep the syncopation interesting as she makes her way through each verse. Her vocals are double or perhaps even triple-tracked in the chorus, creating a sort of harmonic resonance with herself that makes her sad words that much more bittersweet. Just listening superficially, it may sound like the most girlish pop song on the album, but then I take a closer look and realize she’s trying to give the man she’s in the process of leaving one final look, one final chance to breathe in a few fleeting moments of the special thing they had together, before she turns and walks away. These folks sure know how to tie up a quiet tragedy in the prettiest wrapping paper with a little bow on top that money can buy!
11. By the Throat
The sad breakup is dragged out through one more song here, and at this point you probably know Chvrches’ shtick well enough to not be too surprised as the little puffy clouds of synths zip on by and yet another infectious male vocal hook is inserted into the midst of Lauren’s verses – “You know, you know, you know, you know that you go too far.” (I honestly don’t even remember the titles of some of these songs half the time, because the hooks themselves are so iconic, so in my mind, this song is just called “The Too Far Song”.) Lauren keeps the balance between sweet and cruel as she sings “All that’s golden is never real/And I won’t play fair with you this time.” Perhaps part of the reason her voice is so enchanting is because she’s so good at describing the horrible irony of wanting something that you can never have – or at least, something that you can grasp for a short while but never keep.
12. You Caught the Light
Martin’s solemn vocals bring the album to a close, in this stretched out and tearfully distorted ode to a brilliant light source who has apparently forever disappeared from sight. As in “Under the Tide”, his words are kind of vague, and they’re much more slowly sung here, giving the song a much more impressionistic tone that is very different from the quick shots of synthesized adrenaline delivered throughout most of the album. I enjoy the chill mood of this one even if it does get a tad repetitive and isn’t the most fascinating thing that the band has ever done. Its main melodic hook – which seems like it could be the sound of an electric guitar melting into a keyboard, or perhaps vice versa, is the kind of thing that just makes you want to put your hand on your buddy’s shoulder as he watches the love of his life drive away under an uncaring grey sky and say “Sorry, man, I know how you feel.”
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Mother We Share $1.75
We Sink $1.50
Under the Tide $1.25
Night Sky $1.50
By the Throat $1.25
You Caught the Light $1
Lauren Mayberry: Lead vocals, synthesizers, sampling
Iain Cook: Synthesizers, guitar, bass, backing vocals
Martin Doherty: Synthesizers, sampling, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: