In Brief: It’s a shade lighter and more optimistic than The Bones of What You Believe, and its deep cuts aren’t quite as exploratory as the ones on that album, but it’s still a powerhouse synthpop album that wears its 80s influences loud and proud. Chvrches may need to shake up the formula next time around, but for now I’m glad they’re sticking to their guns.
Wow, is this really the first time all year that I’m giving an album an “A” grade? I feel like I’ve been extra stingy with those this year. I was almost stingy enough to deny Chvrches their second “A” in a row for it, too, merely because I had decided the band hadn’t quite lived up to the phenomenal pop powerhouse that was The Bones of What You Believe, but then I realized that it took a little time for some of the moodier tracks on that record to really grab me to the point where I went from “like” to “love”. Slowly a lot of those 4-star songs in my iTunes library crept up to 5. And the same thing’s happening to me with the Scottish synthpop outfit’s second album, Every Open Eye. Absolutely solid front half, then some stuff that takes me a little longer to fully appreciate (though none of it suffers in the slightest bit for catchiness). This group knows what they do well and for the most part, they stick to it. I knew that going into it. With some groups, you expect curveballs on their sophomore efforts, and this is where a group can stumble just as easily as they can deliver an underappreciated masterpiece. Maybe one day it’ll be Chvrches’ turn to take that hard left turn. But for now I’m glad they’re sticking with what works.
Now that’s not to say that the songs on Every Open Eye are merely the same ideas from Bones rehashed, given slightly different melodies and new words. They’ve gone from red to pink here, if the album art is any indication. The songs are a shade happier this time around. That’s not to say that a little darkness and a strong dose of Lauren Mayberry‘s feistiness doesn’t creep in here and there, but if you’re expecting anything as spine-chilling as “Science/Visions” or as ambient as “Tether” or “You Caught the Light”, then you might not be as keen on this one. I really enjoy all of the aforementioned songs, as well as the darker undercurrents of more straightforwardly catchy songs like “Lies” or “Gun”, but I get the feeling that this album was motivated more by triumph than tribulation. That’s actually a surprising place for Chvrches to be coming from, considering the sharp-tongued social commentary we might have expected from a woman who’s had to take as much sexist crap from the Internet as Lauren has. But I sort of appreciate how that’s addressed in the subtext of songs that are, sometimes quite literally about rising above the struggle and just plain being better than all that. On the surface, a lot of the rhythm tracks and synth melodies feel straight out of the 1980s, even more so than on their last album, to the point where I could play this record for a friend who is a fan of a lot of 80s synthpop and she was in love with the sound of it from pretty much the first notes. Ten or twenty years ago I probably would have hated Chvrches for that, but these days, I love it.
If there’s one thing I truly miss from the first album, it’s a subtle thing at best. I don’t think I fully appreciated, until going back to some of those older songs, how much vocal interplay there was between Lauren and Martin Doherty. He only sang lead on two of that album’s songs, and here he only gets one, but he would add these little vocal counterpoints to a lot of her songs, to the point where it now sounds like a little something’s missing when I don’t hear a lot of that in the new songs. Maybe there’s a little chopped-up vocal sample from one to support the other’s lead vocal, but they don’t tag team the way that they did on “Night Sky” or the aforementioned “Science/Visions”. Of course Martin and Iain Cook are still synth wizards behind the scenes, as I should stress Lauren is as well – they’re a true band despite their insistence on keeping the entire rhythm section computerized, not just a vehicle for a pretty voice. But once you get to about track nine or ten, you can start to predict the general formula and structure of some of these songs, so I feel like the album could use another Martin lead vocal (there’s a pretty good one among the special edition bonus tracks, actually) or a point-counterpoint duet to spice things up. That’s only the slightest debit against an otherwise solid set of credits to Chvrches’ repertoire, though. If they can keep this general pace while finding ways to gradually tweak their sound over time, I think they’ll have high potential for some real longevity in an industry that tends to forget about its buzz bands in the space of two or three years.
1. Never Ending Circles
“Can synthesizers do arpeggios?” is a question that I’m sure you would have never thought to ask. But this song answers it, rather abruptly, with the quick blast of notes that opens it, and like many a Chvrches song from their debut, it doesn’t just come up with one clever hook and call it a day. That simply won’t do when the band can pack three or four of them into the same song. You’ve got the chopped-up vocal bits that may or may not be a nod to “The Mother We Share”, the stop-start game of vocal ping-pong that Lauren plays with herself in the verses, and of course the monster chorus melody that she belts at the top of her lungs. Despite all the glitz and gloss, this seems like a bitter song – a sarcastic toast, perhaps, to a relationship that just keeps running right back into the same dead end: “Here’s to never ending circles/And building them on top of me/And here’s to just another no man/If you want another, say you need another.” Her resolve to stop the cycle dead in its tracks in the second verse may as well be her mission statement for the band: “I’ll go my way if I’m going at all.”
2. Leave a Trace
A wise critic once said that Chvrches write pre-choruses that are good enough to be choruses. There’s probably no better example of that than this record’s lead single, which pulls a rather neat trick in terms of how its pre-chorus, with its uber-catchy hook “I know – I need – to feel – relief”, springboard right into the chorus, which trades “relief” for “release”, shifting what was the second and fourth line of the pre-chorus to the first and third of the chorus. It’s one of those musically satisfying “pop perfection” moments that is tough for me to fully do justice with mere words. Lauren won’t take no sass from nobody – she’s described this song in interviews as a “middle-finger mic drop”, and while there’s no actual profanity this time around, she’s pretty clear in her feelings about a man who has not only left her high and dry, but tattled all the sordid details of their relationship for whatever willing ears wanted to listen in: “Take care to bury all that you can/Take care to leave a trace of a man.” Martin and Iain’s synths are in top form here, worming their way through the irresistibly syncopated rhythm, which of course kicks into high gear just to make that chorus sting a little more. Just one listen should be all it takes to get this one stuck in your head for weeks.
3. Keep You on My Side
“Fast and furious” is how I like to describe this song. I think it exceeds everything on their first album in terms of sheer bpm’s, but even if I’m technically wrong about that and there’s a faster song on Bones, it doesn’t have the same density and rhythmic intensity as this one. You could get a real workout here, is what I’m saying. I’m a big fan of the wall of sound, so it goes without saying that I’m delighted to hear the drum programming ticking off all those sixteenth notes and all the little vocal samples ricocheting off of their surroundings. You really get the sense that time is running out as you listen to this one, and that seems to be the place Lauren was in when she wrote it, frustrated with a relationship just barely keeping itself afloat, wondering how long the charade could be kept up. If not for Chvrches’ keen ability to mix the dark and the light sides of all the synthpop wizardry they’ve got going on, the cheery keyboard sound that chimes in during the chorus would seem out of place. It’s almost like something I’d expect from Haim, and given that the two bands are mutual fans of each other, that may not be a coincidence.
4. Make Them Gold
Now if you’re actually looking for cheery, this might be as close as Chvrches gets to your desired mood. Sure, you might mistake Lauren’s sorta-chirpy vocals for happy on other songs if you’re not listening closely to the lyrics, but here, she seems downright determined to lift our spirits and get us downright pumped for whatever trials and tribulations we’re about to stay down. The rhythm track and the big, neon-glow synth melody make me think that if Glasgow had hosted the Olympics in the 1980s, this probably would have been their theme song. I mean, “We will take the best parts of ourselves and make them gold”? Wow. it’s so cheesy and yet so darned effective. It was made for sporting arenas, and while I didn’t hold the song in as high regard as some of their sassier ones at first, I have to give the band credit for pulling off a happy song in a way that feels genuinely empowering instead of loaded down with empty platitudes.
5. Clearest Blue
A lot of the tracks on this album hit you right in the face with a big hook; this may well be the catchiest and most impressive track on the album, but it’s actually the rare case where they embrace the slow build, more like some of the tracks on their first album. It’s a very upbeat and danceable track all the way through, unlike some of their earlier slow-burners, and Lauren’s certainly got one of her wordier, more motor-mouthed choruses going on, but the chorus isn’t where the song hits its peak intensity. The synths are bubbling up throughout the first few verses and choruses, fitting her description of a troubled relationship swirling around like a hurricane with her just trying to find some peace and clarity in the eye of it, and then the second chorus does this absolutely brilliant handoff to a bridge that never bothers to hand it back over. These octave-jumping synths, an obvious homage to their musical heroes and one-time tourmates in Depeche Mode (check my review title if you want a hint at the specific song they’re referencing), absolutely run away with the last few minutes of the song, while Lauren layers two different refrains on top of it for an absolutely triumphant finish. The moment where the music first hits that peak might just be my favorite moment in all of the music that’s been released for this entire year so far. I just never want to come down from that high.
6. High Enough to Carry You Over
I made some wisecracks after my first listen to this album about how it was so 80s-influenced, they practically Rickrolled themselves. Nowhere is that more apparent to me than in Martin’s sole lead vocal contribution, for which I believe the appropriate genre term is “sophisti-pop”, where he dares to sing a chorus of “I never would have given you up, if you only hadn’t given me up” with a straight face, knowing full well what song we’re all going to be thinking of. Alright, so it’s not a Rick Astley clone genre-wise, but still. It may as well be the down-in-the-dumps sequel that happened after the never-giver-upper got given-up-on. Martin seems to get his fair share of criticism just for not being Lauren, but it’s important to remember that he was part of the project before she was, and I like that he contributes here and there, since it breaks up the flow of the album and offers a different perspective. Despite the rhythm being more laid-back and the song in general resembling the more “rubbery” sound of 80s pop music that I used to make fun of, I do appreciate that it’s never formulaic when Martin takes over – this song sounds nothing like “Under the Tide” or “You Caught the Light”, and neither this nor either of those songs sound like anything else Chvrches has done.
7. Empty Threat
You might start to level the “formulaic” accusation against some of the songs in this album’s back half. In this case, they’re following a high-octane formula, so I can’t complain too much. But despite the exciting fast pace and the fist-pumping adrenaline rush of this song’s chorus, I do start to feel at this point like the songs aren’t as distinctive as the first five tracks or most of their previous album. What I like most here is how a song called “Empty Threat” is actually about taking one back – Chvrches had a curious habit on this album of titling songs after things that the song is specifically about not doing. The chorus is sung with enough force that Lauren is nearly shouting parts of it, which contrasts with her sweeter vocal delivery in the verse. It’s an interesting contrast to “Keep You on My Side” when she sings “I was better off when I was on your side, and I was holding on.” In general the back half of this album seems to be a bit of an apology or a retraction for the more aggressive and cynical mood of several songs in the front half (“Make Them Gold” notwithstanding). It’s later in the process – she’s actively trying to work things out at this point.
8. Down Side of Me
You can definitely file this one under “songs that don’t sound like other Chvrches songs”. It’s slower, moodier, built on a curious clicking and crackling sort of rhythm, and above all it’s very introspective. I’m not sure if I’d quite call it a ballad like the first half of “Tether”, nor would I call its climax as surprising and exhilarating as that song’s, but I know it’s not meant to be. She’s trying to find reasons to be optimistic and she keeps coming up against that ghost of her pessimistic side, and there’s a genuine sorrow in her voice as she tries to put on a brave front here. While I’ve heard bits and pieces of Martin in the background of one or two other songs, this is probably where his vocals intertwine with Lauren’s the most, albeit in a heavily processed matter, as he offers the mantra “Not the same, not the same” to lead into her chorus. It’s not quite as clever as some of the interplay between the two that I enjoyed so much on their first album, but they do make excellent use of vocal sampling when Lauren becomes her own doppelganger as the bridge builds to a subtler climax.
9. Playing Dead
I’ll be honest and say that while I enjoy the last two up-tempo tracks on this album, I do get them confused with each other at times, because their titles both deal with death. This is the more “sinister-sounding” of the two – the hook has some pretty cool pitch-shifting going off that gives off a darker vibe sort of like “Lies”, although I hate to compare it to my absolute favorite Chvrches song because that creates unfair expectations. Lauren’s determination is compelling – the song seems to deliver an ultimatum saying she’ll stand her ground if the guy she’s been on and off with all this time could just manage to grow a backbone and stand his as well. Fun stuff, but I do feel like there’s some intangible thing missing here that keeps it from being top-tier material.
10. Bury It
More stuttering synths, more punchy, determined lead vocals… at this point you know the drill and whether you like this sort of thing. I’d put this one in the more upbeat, optimistic category with “Make Them Gold”, since it’s more determined with rising above petty fights than continuing to pick them. But you know how I’ve pointed out that Chvrches has a gift for coming up with strong choruses that are catchy despite their inherent wordiness? Making a conscious attempt to avoid them shows a shortcoming here, since her repeated cries of “You BURY IT! You BURY IT! And RISE ABOVE!” can get a bit annoying as the song drags on. I might not feel this way if I couldn’t predict nearly every aspect of how the song was going to play out, right down to it reprising the hook for a few bars after the last chorus and then suddenly cutting out (which Chvrches does a lot, in case you hadn’t noticed by now). It’s a fun song despite how stubbornly it follows the formula, but it’s definitely not a direction I’d want the band to pursue any further, because the big pop hook here is more “brute force” while their usual ones are far more masterful and elegant.
I hate to end this review on a downer note, especially for an album that I’m giving the rare “A” grade to… fortunately it’s front-loaded enough that I still feel it earns that grade despite the downer ending. Once again, I can’t blame Chvrches for trying something different here. They’ve set aside the percussion entirely and they’re trusting Lauren’s lonely voice and some slow, airy synths to give the album a peaceful coda. The song may even be a bit of a bookend to “Leave a Trace” since two of its verses name-check the song, but here it’s more about the lights and sounds and colors reminding you of a past relationship after the person is long gone. She sounds downright defeated when she sighs “I’ve given up all I can” several times at the end of the song. When I first heard it, I was honestly surprised that this was the end. I was expecting it to break out into this big, sad parade of gloomy synth magic or something. And I get that they were going for restraint here, but I know know, it’s kind of like the synthpop equivalent of when an aggressive rock band suddenly goes acoustic for their closing song and they’re playing these really boring, basic chords. Nice idea, but you need to step up the musicianship a bit to compensate for the drop in energy. It’s too simplistic.
There are some bonus tracks on the special edition that I think are worth hearing even though they’re not quite A-game material. “Get Away”, which is apparently from a re-release of the Drive soundtrack (Huh? That movie came out like four years ago), is a decently catchy song about not letting someone get away, most notable for its smeared vocal hook which I’m not sure was the greatest idea, but at least it’s distinctive. Then there’s “Bow Down”, which, whaddya know, is about not bowing down. It’s a more upbeat and defiant tune that I’d easily take over “Bury It”, since I think that would make the back half of the record a bit stronger. Finally, there’s another Martin-fronted track, “Follow You”, which has its own weird bits of vocal sampling which I think actually contribute quite a bit to the dark, lonely, yet strangely romantic vibe of the song. I definitely think it’s a stronger track than “High Enough to Carry You Over”, and I wouldn’t complain if this song had been chosen to end off the album or at least serve as a more gradual comedown preceding “Afterglow”. All of this is to say, go ahead and spring for the special edition if you’re an existing fan, but it’s probably not essential material for first-time listeners.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Never Ending Circles $1.75
Leave a Trace $2
Keep You on My Side $2
Make Them Gold $1.50
Clearest Blue $2
High Enough to Carry You Over $1
Empty Threat $1.50
Down Side of Me $1.25
Playing Dead $1.25
Bury It $.75
Lauren Mayberry: Lead vocals, synthesizers, sampling
Iain Cook: Synthesizers, guitar, bass, backing vocals
Martin Doherty: Synthesizers, sampling, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: