Album Review: Love is Dead // CHVRCHES

My first music festival was Firefly Festival in 2013. CHVRCHES had one EP out, Recover, and were in the process of promoting their debut album. In this moment, CHVRCHES was still fresh to many of the festival attendees, but was also a band “on the rise”.  A friend played me ‘The Mother We Share’ in the car about a month before I attended Firefly, and on the strength of that song alone I vowed to see CHVRCHES at every opportunity I could.

The band had three events planned at Firefly: an interview, a DJ set, and a 40 minute set at a mid-sized stage in the back of the festival grounds. The interview was uneventful. A Q&A portion afterwards consisted of one question, me asking Iain Cook (who handles the majority of the instrumentation for the band both live and on record) how the band settled on their name. He told the crowd of about 20 people in attendance that originally the band worked under the name Shark Week, but were forced to change it when they found another band online that had already commandeered that name. He said they settled on CHVRCHES because, in his words, “it sounded cool”. Their DJ set (conducted by singer Lauren Mayberry and co-producer Martin Doherty) consisted solely of 90’s R&B hits. I managed to snag autographs from these two on a copy of a map of the festival I was carrying with me, and spent the rest of the set standing next to Iain and their manager watching them mess around with a turntable.

After their DJ set concluded, I finessed my way to the front of the crowd for their big performance and hung for dear life to the barricades. The crowd exploded with positivity from the first note of set opener ‘We Sink’. CHVRCHES rolled through the majority of as-yet unheard debut, The Bones of What You Believe, throwing the crowd into a frenzy with the driving synths and angelic falsettos that would propel their debut to virtually every year end “best of” list you could find in 2013.

CHVRCHES would relish in this success, and come back with what was effectively a glossier version of their debut in 2015 with Every Open Eye. It was a higher fidelity record, which would at times work to the bands detriment, but Every Open Eye was still a worthy successor to their debut. 

What made the band stick out amongst their peers in their genre, in my eyes, was a sense of realness about them. Their authenticity drips out of every interview they’ve done as a band. CHVRCHES as a group of individuals speak with intent and with personality, even if that doesn’t always translate to more robust songs on record. They come across as real individuals that care about their music and care about their fans. Look no further then their FANCLVB, which hosts lotteries in lieu of VIP tickets for every show, so any fan that wants to has an equal opportunity to meet the band and snag a photo with them. From their presence online, to their playfulness in interviews, to their care and chivalry in person, the band exudes a sense of personal touch and care that is not often seen in the music community they are a part of. Above all else, this realness is undoubtedly what keeps a large portion of their fans hooked to their music.

Which brings us to this album. Love is Dead, CHVRCHES’ third full-length album, represents a shift in the band’s discography. Whereas with their prior two records CHVRCHES chose to produce the entire album alone, with this new project  the band brought in Greg Kurstin, a massive pop producer who has worked with Adele, Sia, Halsey, and other pop outfits such as Years & Years. This move was assumed to be a part of a bold pivot on the part of the band to reach even loftier pop heights, with even bigger and grander songs then the band had made to date. This was ostensibly the case. Unfortunately, what we are actually given with Love is Dead can only be described as a massive disappointment. With Love is Dead, CHVRCHES has stripped the humanity from their music, betraying the hopes of their fans, leaving in it’s place a collection of limp, blurred, and lifeless pop tracks, ill-equipped for anything other than radio-fare at a local car wash.

From the first song on the album, it’s clear that CHVRCHES have one goal in mind: take their brand of ‘synth-pop’, move far away from the real ‘synth-y soundscapes the band was known for, and plant their flag as a far more ‘pop’-oriented album. The album opener, ‘Graffiti’, is in fact the only moment on the album that manages to come close to capturing the euphoric heights the band is reaching for throughout Love is Dead. The melody is sticky, the instrumental is clean and dense, and the lyrics are a sweet ode to youthful passion and longing.

Alas, the album immediately nosedives into cliché with the next track and lead single for the album, ‘Get Out’. The chorus again is reaching for some sort of anthemic response, but instead settles into anaemia. By comparison, the instrumental here is far flatter, the melody is far less gripping, and the lyrics of the chorus mainly consist of the title of the song. It’s certainly not the worst or must grating moment on the album, but that doesn’t make the song any less bland after multiple listens. 

From here, CHVRCHES offer two more low-key cuts. The first of which, ‘Deliverance’, has some pleasant vocal harmonies, and some decent lyrics about coming to the realization that you are no longer right for someone. ‘My Enemy’, on the other hand, featuring Matt Berninger of The National, is an awkward attempt at making a more downtempo pop track, with a chorus that does not land and a post-chorus breakdown that does even less to carry the song forward.

We then have cuts like ‘Forever’, which gets praise for having the most annoying drum play on the album, replete with another chorus that is 80% the title of the song. ‘Never Say Die’, again with a painfully repetitive chorus, tries to get away with a half-time drum breakdown in the chorus and an extra layer of 808 hi-hats in the second verse, accomplishing neither and dragging the album further through of the sludge of glistening synthesizers this album packs onto every song. ‘Miracle’ reaches a high point in clichéd lyrics with lines such as  “We’re looking for angels in the darkest of skies” and “We’re looking for light inside an ocean of night”. CHVRCHES pairs this excellently with another wholly unearned bombastic chorus.

So much of this album follows such a rudimentary formula of “verse, big chorus, verse plus an extra layer of drums, big chorus again, bridge, one more chorus, outro” that the saccharine production sound of the album starts to bleed from one song into the next, to the point that your ear starts to wash songs together and you lose track of where you are in the album. Am I still listening to ‘Miracle’, or did we move onto ‘Graves’? How would I know? Is ‘Graves’ a bit more political in writing? Who’s to say? With lines like “Washing up on the shore / Do you really expect us to care what you’re waiting for?” you’d expect some grand statement about the refugee crisis in Europe, but when CHVRCHES follows it with a chorus about “dancing on [their] graves]” you fall back into the same shiny lull you’ve been in since the start of the record.

Editor’s note: I’d like to apologise, there was an error earlier in this review. The most clichéd lyrics on record are in fact in the song ‘Heaven/Hell’, where Lauren Mayberry really sells the shit out of lines such as “Am I real if you can see right through me?”, “Have you reached the point of no return?”, and (in keeping the theme of repeating the name of the song several times in the chorus of said song) “Is this heaven or is this hell?”)

Following these tracks, we get ‘God’s Plan’, a darker song sung by Martin Doherty that is boring and brings nothing interesting to the album in any capacity. ‘Really Gone’, however, does present a late-album highlight. It’s the only moment on the album where the band really turns everything down. Most of what keeps this album from being completely unlistenable is the effort Lauren Mayberry puts into her vocals and delivery. Even if the lyrics aren’t up to par (as they often are not on this album), it’s hard to deny that she sings them with a passion and conviction that far outweighs her past performances. ‘Really Gone’ is just vocals and two synths, stripped bare of any percussion. Such a nakedly small moment really allows Mayberry’s voice to shine through, with forlorn lyrics about the moment you realise you can’t hold a relationship together any longer. It’s one of the few moments on Love is Dead that CHVRCHES manages to really pull at your heartstrings, but pull it does.

The album closes with ‘Wonderland’, which is led in with a minute long Westworld-sounding instrumental passage. ‘Wonderful’ retreads through the same territory as most of the rest of the album, ending Love is Dead on a big bland sendoff of a chorus.

Throughout this album CHVRCHES seem to operate under the impression that every explosion of sound that comes with the tracks on these albums is owed to them, that the band deserves the adrenaline rush they want simply because of their prior work and their current production partner. With the exception of a few spare moments on Love is Dead, CHVRCHES does nothing to actually earn these heights they so desperately aim for. In shifting towards becoming a straight pop music act, CHVRCHES has also shifted away from good songwriting, into terrain that’s common for most pop stars but not for a band that has put out such solid music in the past. Here’s hoping the band learns from the mistakes of this album and comes out stronger for it on their next album.

4/10

Words by Sebastian Campbell

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