Chvrches – Screen Violence: No one ever tells you there’s freedom in the failure.

Artist: Chvrches
Album: Screen Violence
Year: 2021
Grade: B+

In Brief: By know you should know that Chvrches isn’t the kind of band you expect to radically reinvent itself on each new album. The trio knows what works for them, which is high-octane synthpop with generally dark and brooding lyrics, and they’re consistent about it almost to a fault on album #4. It’s hard to complain when they piece together beats, vocal hooks, and synth melodies with lightning precision almost every time, and when they know how to go for the lyrical gut-punch in terms of confronting what scares them. For now I’m going with a rating on this one that says “Pretty darn good, but your first three albums set an almost impossibly high bar for you to clear, so keep trying!”


Fair warning, in case you somehow missed all of my previous gushing about the band: I’m a bit of a Chvrches fanboy. Like, not to the extent where I have all of their demo versions and B-sides memorized and I know all three of the band members’ favorite foods or anything like that. But if you asked me to name a single artist that represented the absolute best of what I loved about music in the 2010s, it would definitely be them. Their first three albums that came out during that decade were about as close to flawless as a run of three albums from any band could be. Sure, I might have had some minor quibbles with a track or two on Every Open Eye or Love Is Dead that didn’t measure up to the ridiculously high standards set by their debut The Bones of What You Believe, my absolute favorite album of the entire last decade. Most bands who start off with such a jaw-droppingly impressive set of songs on album #1 tend to stumble a bit on album 2 or 3, either swerving radically into out-of-genre experiments to prove to naysayers that they’re not a one-trick pony, letting bigshot producers take over and dilute the unique creative alchemy that went into their early work, or else just doing more of the same without having nearly as much time to think it through. Chvrches somehow did mostly “more of the same” while keeping the quality consistently high. Even when they experiment with a bit of live instrumentation, or bring in a guest vocalist or outside producer, the synths still come hot and heavy, the voice of Lauren Mayberry seems to cut to the bone of the listener’s insecurities while paradoxically feeling like the soothing reassurance of a friend who’s been there before, and there’s an embarrassment of riches in the melodic hook department. I’ve commented on many occasions that a really good Chvrches song seems like it gives you two choruses for the price of one. There are artsy bands that kick against traditional verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus song structures, and then there are bands like Chvrches who seek to enhance that structure, with the pre-choruses and bridges of their songs often being as arresting as the main hooks are. I’m fine with a band staying in their lane when they own that lane like a friggin’ BOSS.

So it’s 2021, and almost like clockwork, it’s time for another Chvrches record. They tend to put them out about two to three years apart, and it’s nice to know that Covid-19 didn’t even really slow them down. The title, Screen Violence, was inspired by an early idea for a band name, but also by a practice that became depressingly commonplace in the early days of the pandemic: Having to work remotely and only see your mates in tiny boxes on a screen, due to the high risk of unwittingly passing on the disease to a colleague. It seems pretty natural that a band whose music is mostly comprised of electronic effects, rather than being played on live instruments all in a room together, would adapt pretty well to this challenge. But there was also a crippling amount of fear and uncertainty to deal with in those days, and that’s where the “violence” aspect of the record comes in. Chvrches has honestly never been a happy-go-lucky band, despite the deceptively chirpy nature of a lot of their catchy pop songs. But this record seems to up the ante in terms of lyrics that will give the listener the willies if they’re paying close attention. It isn’t about life in a global pandemic per se, but it’s definitely coming from a band whose members were shaken by the constant reminders of their own mortality. Death and depression haunt many of the ten songs presented on this record, while a few of them also feature fiery commentary from Lauren on the subject of gender norms, and the frustrating tedium of trying to challenge them. For the most part it’s a record about things that aren’t fun to say, but that need to be said. It’s hard to pull something like that off without it feeling like a lecture, and that’s where the irresistible buoyancy of the band’s sound comes to the rescue. One of the cornerstone songs on this record – one in which the band gets to perform with a longtime musical hero – is entitled “How Not to Drown”, and that title could honestly serve as a thesis for the entire record, because it’s the band’s commitment to delivering delightful, engaging instrumentation that keeps the whole thinking from sinking under its own emotional weight.

Now, is Screen Violence good enough at what it sets out to do that it manages to keep up the winning streak established by its predecessors. I want so badly to say that it is, because it comes awfully darn close, particularly in the string of amazing songs throughout its front half. But, looking at things more objectively and not through the lens of someone who wants to find reasons to call everything this band does utterly amazing, it does start to feel a bit like they’re coasting through the back half of the record. Chvrches on cruise control will generally make some enjoyable, even thought-provoking music, but it’s telling that when I consider which tracks on this record will likely go down in history as all-time favorites of mine, I’m consistently preoccupied with those first five tracks, to the detriment of the other five. Chvrches albums have always been a bit top-heavy, if I’m being truthful – but that’s only because there were two or three tracks in the back half of their previous albums that I merely “liked” that never quite nudged themselves into the “love” category. Here, there are legitimately one or two tracks out of the ten that kind of feel like filler, where the melodies and instrumentation are undeniably Chvrches, but nothing about them really jumps out at me. Let’s be clear – if these ten songs had been put out by a brand new band, I’d still be raving at the high level of overall quality, just with a few suggestions for how they could improve as they continued to find their voice. In the case of Chvrches, knowing that they select songs for their records pretty carefully and they normally take about as long to come up with 11 or 12 of them instead of 10, that means that there isn’t as much margin for error here. It’s a slight misstep, but not an embarrassing stumble. But it is what ultimately broke the streak and cost them their fourth “A” grade in a row. Coming from almost any other band, though, this honestly wouldn’t even register as a disappointment.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. Asking for a Friend
Chvrches can always be counted on to start off a record with an absolute stunner. This is the first time that they haven’t led off with the immediate sound of ping-ponging vocal effects – as much as I love “The Mother We Share”, “Never Ending Circles”, and “Graffiti”, I’m glad that this time they saved that trick for later. Here, they take their time to let the track unfold, with clear vocals from Lauren setting the stage before the beat kicks in: “I don’t want to say/That I’m afraid to die/I’m no good at goodbyes/I can’t apologize/And if I don’t stop now/Will it follow me down?/I guess I have to try/It’s the art of getting by.” This immediately sets us up for a record that is often preoccupied with the topic of death, and with endings that we are unprepared for. And when that beat kicks in – AWWWWW YEAH. That one’s got some real kick to it – and plenty of booming low-end, too. And of course the synths begin to sparkle as the song proudly morphs into the Chvrches sound we all know and love at this point. The structure of the song gives us a bit more in this case – it’s one of the few album cuts they’ve put out that runs over five minutes, and part of the reason why I find the front half of this album so engaging is that I feel like they give the songs a little extra room to breathe. This one in particular feels like it could wrap up at around the three minute mark, but I love that it goes for a victory lap instead, with the synths swirling around in the air like they’re the Northern Lights, an effect that sort of reminds me of the climax from “Tether”. It’s one of Lauren’s most intriguingly confessional pieces, as she hints at becoming a serial heartbreaker for a while there, simply because she needed something distracting to fill the void, and now she feels a bit of remorse at letting someone go who meant more to her than just a fling: “Cause I filled my bed with my regrets/But it hasn’t killed me yet/None of it mattered/None of it mattered/And the mess we made on Fridays/Gave me Sundays on my knees/But you still matter/You still matter.” That phrase “You still matter” reverberates throughout the bridge of the song, the first of two effective climaxes that the band gives us here for the price of one. I think it’s quite clever how the phrase “asking for a friend” takes on a different meaning here. We’ve become used to seeing it as a sarcastic deflection, a funny way of saying “I have this loaded/embarrassing question that I want to ask, but I’m afraid of what it might imply about me, so I’ll joke that I’m asking on someone else’s behalf.” Here it seems to mean that she’s asking someone to be her friend – possibly someone she took for granted by not letting them get too close when they were involved romantically/sexually for a brief period of time.
Grade: A+

2. He Said She Said
Releasing track two as the lead single has been a go-to strategy for Chvrches on three consecutive albums now, with this one following in the footsteps of the uber-catchy “Leave a Trace” and “Get Out”. I like this strategy because when you first hear the record in full, you get the rush of a brilliant opener that you might be less familiar with, segueing into the song that, if you’re like me, you’ve already fallen head over heels in love with by that point, making it play even better in context. This is actually the shortest track on Screen Violence, and it’s also the one that makes its point with zero beating around the bush, immediately going for the jugular by calling out men with unreasonable expectations of the women they claim to love: “Be sad, but don’t be depressed.” “Get drunk, but don’t be a mess.” “You need to be fed, but keep an eye on your waistline.” The implication here is that all of these contradictory messages about what women should be are enough to drive a person crazy, which is hammered home furiously in a chorus with Lauren’s vocal hook, “I feel like I’m losing my mind!” echoing back and forth between a clear vocal take and a sampled, distorted one. And the real voice and the sample switch places the second time through, and it’s friggin’ amazing. Easily one of the band’s most fun songs to sing along with, with plenty of food for thought in the lyrics department, basically everything you’d want when you’re hearing something new from a favorite band for the first time in years. This one makes its point so well that it doesn’t even need a bridge – two verses, two choruses, and we’re out, with the track’s sudden ending leaving the impression that all this mental distress has been incredibly exhausting.
Grade: A+

3. California
Sometimes a songwriter can accomplish great things by taking a cliché they’d been deliberately avoiding and turning on its head. That’s what Lauren did with the whole idea of writing a song about moving to California/Hollywood and pursuing your dreams here – this ended up being a song about getting stuck there, not having your dreams pan out, feeling trapped, and trying to figure out the life lesson in it all. The lyrics aren’t super clear on the details – since it’s the second person “you” who gets stuck in California, I’m not sure if this is about the band’s own experiences with trying to make a record in L.A. and finding it to be an inhospitable place, or if it’s about a friend of the band who moved here and got stuck at the worst possible time when the pandemic broke out, what with this being one of the first places (at least in America) where strict lockdowns were implemented. Lauren alludes to a funeral that she couldn’t be there for, crying when she talked to someone on the phone, and being pulled into “the screen at the end”. A lot of abstract ideas add up to a very compelling song here, one that I’ll admit I found mildly unnerving on first listen because it came out right at the height of the Delta surge here in California (which has thankfully backed off a bit since then). It made the first line of the chorus, “No one ever warns ya you’ll die in California”, hit a bit too close to home. (That’s also a clever riff on the “California song” cliché – it’s pretty much obligatory to mispronounce “you” so that it rhymes with the last syllable of “California”.) I still love the song, though. The hooks don’t hit quite as hard as the first two tracks, but it’s still sheer melodic goodness, bright synthpop matched to a lyric with darkness and nervousness gnawing at its edges. There’s a bit of electric guitar and some 80s-inspired drum fills here, a reminder that while I spend a lot of time gushing about Lauren’s contributions as frontwoman, I’d be remiss not to mention all of the instrumental genius that Martin Doherty and Iain Cook consistently contribute to the mix. Their roles all overlap so much that sometimes it’s hard to know which ideas came from whom.
Grade: A-

4. Violent Delights
The two longest songs on the album – both topping out at around five and a half minutes – are up next. They’re also two of the most uniquely engrossing tracks Chvrches has ever come up with, and this one in particular has a shuffling drum sample that is such a force of nature that the track doesn’t feel as long as it is. Not that the album hasn’t been dark already, but this is really where we start to dive into the stuff of nightmares, with many of the lyrics being inspired by actual bad dreams that Lauren had – one friend’s father dying, another one drowning, photographers stealing her soul, stuff like that. The drums (which Martin has said were inspired by The Prodigy) rattle around like a person violently shaking, trying to calm themselves down after a panic attack, and they fit perfectly with Lauren’s cry for help in one of her all-time best vocal performances: “These violent delights/Keep creeping into my nights/And they’re reading my rites/And I’ll never sleep alone again.” Martin gets to sing the bridge of this song, which is a nice little change of pace – this is the first Chvrches album where he doesn’t get a track with the lead vocal entirely to himself, and I kind of miss the way he and Lauren would interact vocally in a lot of their early stuff, so this feels like a nice callback to that. Perhaps the scariest thing that Lauren admits here is having the thought that “If I disappear, they’ll say I killed myself.” It’s weird, because I know she’s describing her distressed mental state for the sake of art and entertainment here, but I seriously hope that this is just commentary on how impossible it is to get away from the spotlight, and not actual suicidal ideation. It’s been a depressing year for almost everyone, and it’s hit touring musicians especially hard, and we’ve already lost a number of high-profile musicians to suicide in the last few years. Writing a song like this to express what you’ve been going through can certainly be a healthy way of exorcising those demons, or at least getting them out in the open so that close friends and family know to check in on you. I’d say this track does a bang-up job of accomplishing what it sets out to, because in addition to being one of the most addictive bangers on the record, it also gets the listener to understand and sympathize with some very real and raw fears that the artist had to wrestle with.
Grade: A+

5. How Not to Drown
For a time there, Chvrches resisted the notion of bringing in special guests to co-write or sing on a track. I guess they felt it distracted from the creative process. It seems like they’re more open to it now, at least on rare occasions. Their duet with Matt Berninger of The National on the Love Is Dead track “My Enemy” was certainly a strange entry in the Chvrches catalogue, but this time around I’d say they found a trick that was a perfect fit for an ever higher-profile guest. For a band heavily inspired by the 80s working on a rather dark, and in some ways borderline gothic, synthpop record to get Robert Smith of The Cure to sing on the track is one hell of a vote of confidence, I’d say – this might be an even bigger validation for the band than getting invited to open for Depeche Mode. Now the jury’s still out for me, personally, on whether I’m likely to ever become a big Cure fan. I like some of their stuff, but Smith is a bit of an acquired taste as a vocalist, so I’ll admit I thought it was a bit of a weird fit when I heard him on this dark but dreamy anthem about depression and feeling overwhelmed by your circumstances. (With the song being a co-write by Martin and Lauren that Smith later contributed lyrics to, I have to wonder if in an alternate universe, Martin would have handled the duet vocal on this one, which he may still do in concert, since understandably they can’t just have Smith tagging along with them all the time.) I’ve come to appreciate the contrast, and how Smith’s presence adds to the inherent darkness of the song. Lauren’s opening verse presents the idea that “I’m writing a book on how to stay conscious when you drown”, with Smith’s verse upping the ante on the horrific imagery: “I’m writing a chapter on what to do after they dig you up.” Throughout the song, one gets the feeling that both protagonists feel a bit like zombies, having died and then come back to life horrific reflections of themselves, going through the motions, but mentally and emotionally not really being there. This track originated during a very difficult time when Lauren was actually considering quitting the band (GASP! Say it ain’t so!), and I’m glad she found a way to not just work through it, but to turn it into one of her band’s all-time most intriguing songs, giving her a moment of gratitude where she was able to record this song with both her friends and one of her all-time biggest musical icons. Pretty much everything in the production department is a win here, from the glistening piano chords, to the chunky drum samples that know just when to stop and start again for maximum impact, to the extended ambient outro that gives Smith one last chance to ruminate on the chilly opening verse of the song. And of course we’ve got another indelible hook here, which I think is a great example of Chvrches using a repetitive melody to drive a song into the listener’s brain, but without the actual lyrics being as mind-numbingly repetitive as some of the choruses on Love Is Dead were. They way she extends each emphasized word into three notes makes it a great sing-along moment, despite the utter despair being expressed: “Te-e-ell me-e-e ho-o-ow/It’s better when the su-u-un go-o-oes do-o-own/We will never esca-a-ape thi-i-is to-o-own.” How Chvrches manages to balance the cold confidence of their musical style with such a terrifying amount of vulnerability, I’ll never know. But as Side A of this record closes out, they’ve clearly thrown down the gauntlet to any band hoping to make a better pop record in the year 2021.
Grade: A

6. Final Girl
Side B of the record opens with a pair of songs that I’d say are pretty good, but not quite classics. It’s almost unfair how high the bar has been set at this point – that’s the only reason I’d have mixed feelings about an otherwise decent pop song like this one, which like “California”, brings in some guitars and live drums to enhance the band’s wall of electronic sound. Horror movies influenced a lot of the songwriting on this record, and very specifically on this song, where Lauren sees herself as the equivalent of that one girl who lives to tell the tale in a horror movie, after all the other young (and often promiscuous and scantily clad, if you really want to trot our all the clichés) female characters have been mercilessly slaughtered. The narrative so far makes it pretty clear that this is an analogy for some trauma that she’s been through, and it contains some lines that express genuine concern about her future, particularly the line “And it feels like the weight is too much to carry/I should quit, maybe go get married.” (Side note: PLEASE don’t quit!) This all ties into an anxiety that tends to hit women a lot harder than men in the music industry – the notion that there’s a ticking clock, you should be married and starting a family by a certain age, and that juggling this with the lifestyle of a touring musician often doesn’t work out too well. having survived some of the rigors and abuse that the music industry has put her through already, it’s understandable that she’d spend some of her downtime during the pandemic pondering if this is a good time to hang it up and go live a “normal” life. But it really has to be a question of what she wants, and not the expectations that other people are forcing onto her. The fact that she chose to record this song with the band tells me that her decision was ultimately “no”, at least for now.
Grade: B

7. Good Girls
So, here are the ping-ponging vocal effects that I mentioned earlier. It makes the beginning of this song feel… well, an awful lot like an also-ran version of “The Mother We Share”. Shoot, Lauren even drops the f-bomb in this one for the first time on an album track since the two opening tracks on The Bones of What You Believe (“Mother”, of course, being the first). Thematically, I’d say this song is a lot different – it’s an unapologetic declaration that she’s sick and tired of trying to live up to what other people expect of her because she’s a woman. It starts and ends with the notion that “Killing your idols is a chore”, which I take to mean that she’s deconstructing a lot of the traditional ideas she was brought up with, but finding it to be a lot of hard work. There’s a message of empowerment to this one that I can get behind, pointing out that truly carving out your own path in life is going to be a difficult slog at times, but it’s ultimately better than caving to what others want. Musically, it’s pretty standard fare for Chvrches compared to what we’ve heard thus far. I’ve said that I’m mostly fine with “more of the same” from this group, and I’ll stick to that assessment, but that’s what enables them to make good songs, not necessarily great ones. All of the great songs in the front half pushed themselves above and beyond the band’s expected norms, at least in some minor way, like an innovative drum sample, or a structural deviation that extended the song, or a creative use of a male vocal, etc. The only thing unique that I can pinpoint here is what sounds like a guitar solo (it could very well be a synth sampled to sound like a guitar) during the bridge – but it doesn’t come in very loud, and melodically speaking it isn’t very adventurous. This was the third single released from the album after “He Said She Said” and “How Not to Drown”, but I don’t know; it’s not one of the songs I’d have hand-picked if it were up to me.
Grade: B

8. Lullabies
This track is where an otherwise strong album reaches its weakest point. I can’t say that Chvrches wrote a bad song here – it’s fine at this point to tap the brakes for more of a mid-tempo anthemic track, and pull back on the sonic wizardry a bit to give Lauren’s lyrics a little more room to breathe. Of course, even for a song like “Lullabies” that seems to have a reassuring title, it still ends up being about some form of emotional distress, with her noting that “lullabies don’t comfort me”, and in another tie-in to the overall theme of the album, she comments: “Televise the great disaster/We’re better off inside the screen.” All signs are pointing to this forced break, which necessitates everyone interacting via strings, actually being the excuse she needed to take some time for a little self-care. Vocally, she’s in strong form here, but melodically, this track feels rather pedestrian, and despite the presence of some pretty piano and strings, the production here seems rather rote. The keyboards and even the strong bass line just seem to hover and repeat themselves, and the drum programming, which is a simple 4/4 beat without any syncopation, starts to seem obnoxiously loud for such a laid-back song, due to its complete lack of variance. It hurts to say this, but this sounds like the work of a less professional band that absolutely adores Chvrches and wants to recreate their sound, but that doesn’t know quite how to pull it off with the same level of finesse and creativity. Chvrches has done nothing so far that I outright dislike, but if I had to rank all of their album tracks from most to least favorite, I can honestly say that I’d have to put this one dead last.
Grade: C+

9. Nightmares
This is the densest, and most intriguing, song that the back half of the album has to offer. It almost pulls off the same sort of build to a climax that “Asking for a Friend”, “Violent Delights”, and “How Not to Drown” handled so well. Tempo-wise, this one’s also more on the “mid” side than the “fast” side, though it works well to gradually ramp up the energy level after “Lullabies” – despite my meh reaction to that song, I think it leads into this one quite nicely. Lauren has already referenced the contents of her nightmares on “Violent Delights”; this song is really about more of a repeating pattern she’s recognized where she gets into relationships, ending up resenting them because she’s not communicating what she wants very well, having those relationships end, and then using them as fodder for songwriting. The chorus is very self-referential in that sense: “I’ve been singing that song again/Another ballad that won’t make amends/It’s been giving me nightmares again/And they don’t end.” Unlike “Lullabies”, this song is tactful about when it decides to bring in the heavy drums, varying the percussion quite a bit so that it can pull off a nice little build from the more contemplative verse to the heavier chorus. There’s also some rhythm guitar here, which I’d say is used more for weight than melody – it’s mostly hammering the same power chords over and over, but it adds to the already intense texture of the song once it really gets going, a nice contrast to the clear piano chords heard at the beginning (which was likely the instrument that the song was composed on). Throughout the track, there’s always a vocal sample, or some buried whispers, or something deeper in the mix that might not grab your attention at first, but that reveals itself when you listen more closely and intently to the song, so I think there’s probably some stuff here that I haven’t fully discovered yet, which might manage to push it over the boundary between “like it” and “love it”. For now, I’m going with a really strong “like”.
Grade: B+

10. Better If You Don’t
Chvrches albums generally don’t end as strong as they start. With the very notable exception of Love Is Dead‘s “Wonderland”, the band typically closes on something more down-tempo and contemplative. But usually those closing tracks have a strong sense of finality to them – the long, drawn-out haze of “You Caught the Light” and the bare keyboards and vocals of “Afterglow” wouldn’t have made sense anywhere else on their respective albums. This track, on the other hand, feels like a mid-album track that wound up at the end more or less by accident. There’s not much of a sense of finality to it at all. Unusually for Chvrches, it’s a very guitar-driven track. I can’t think of another one they’ve done where electric guitar was the primary instrument throughout the entire first verse and chorus, except for “Tether”, which was such a great surprise due to how radically its character changed midway through. This track, while it does bring in the synths and drum programming at verse two, does so in a way that feels rather rote. There’s nothing about the guitar playing or the electronic elements that would make me think “Now there’s a great synthpop band that I want to hear more from!” if I were to hear this track on its own without knowing anything else about the band. It’s not one of the more convincing incorporations of live instrumentation into their sound. The lyrics are a bit of a sad meditation on the realization that the good ol’ days are gone, on feeling lonely and uncertain of your future, and not knowing who to turn to because most of your old friends are either distant or dead. Yeah, pretty depressing stuff, but 100% in character for this album. She’s characterizing the past like it’s an ex-lover here, telling herself it’s better not to think of it too much, and she needs to get over it and move on. “It’s better if you don’t care, but if you do/I won’t follow you again”, she signs with resignation, and during the final chorus, those words are laid bare after the final guitar chord plays, bringing the album to a sudden halt on an unresolved note. This would make a great segue into another song, but as a conclusion, it’s uncharacteristically weak.
Grade: C+

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Asking for a Friend $2
He Said She Said $2
California $1.50
Violent Delights $2
How Not to Drown $1.75
Final Girl $1
Good Girls $1
Lullabies $.50
Nightmares $1.25
Better If You Don’t $.50
TOTAL: $13

BAND MEMBERS:
Lauren Mayberry: Lead vocals, synthesizers, sampling
Iain Cook: Synthesizers, guitar, bass, backing vocals
Martin Doherty: Synthesizers, sampling, backing vocals

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:

MORE USEFUL LINKS:
http://chvrch.es/
https://www.facebook.com/CHVRCHES

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