Album Review: Screen Violence // Chvrches

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Screen Violence, the title of Scottish synth-pop trio, Chvrches’, fourth album, acquires new meaning in a post-lockdown world. While the screen once provided escapism and distraction from life, it is increasingly becoming a medium through which we experience it. Screens facilitate a hyper-engagement with the world around us, simplifying communication while simultaneously making the interaction feel distorted and fragmented. Chvrches’ latest record presents an exploration of this dystopian digital age. Hailing from the depths of Glasgow, we delve into the latest release from Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook, and Martin Doherty.

Unlike its more mainstream-poppy predecessor, Love is Dead, Screen Violence harks back to the early days of Chvrches. Indeed, this latest record receives its title from a proposed band name that was ultimately rejected by the trio. While, in many ways, their latest release feels like a return to the organic synth-pop sound of their debut album, The Bones of What You Believe, which spiralled the group into success, Screen Violence marks a distinct evolution from its original form. It is more narrative, more visual, more sensationally cinematic than anything Chvrches have produced before. 

The record opens with ‘Asking for a Friend’, a contemplative lamentation of past regrets in which stripped-back lyrics evoke a raw vulnerability: “And the mess we made on Fridays / Gave me Sundays on my knees”. The track builds up slowly, before bursting into an electrifyingly euphoric chorus. Powerful lyrics, an infectious beat, together with Lauren Mayberry’s ethereal vocals make it a quintessential Chvrches anthem. The repetition of “you still matter”, in all its simplicity, feels blissfully warm and elating.

 Screen Violence features more acoustic tracks than on the trio’s previous records. ‘California’ foregrounds the guitar, producing a hazy melody, cathartic and melancholic in equal parts. In ‘Better If You Don’t’ the electronics are similarly cut away and Mayberry’s gleaming vocals are complemented by a breezy guitar line.

The underlying feeling of the album, however, is far from breezy, as Screen Violence is unmistakably Chvrches’ darkest release yet. The trio are keen fans of retro 80s slasher films and much of the record’s imagery is rooted in the horror genre. Its centrepiece, ‘How Not to Drown’, a collaboration with The Cure’s Robert Smith, is gloomy and gothic, a movement away from the band’s trademark synth-pop style towards a shadowy alternative form of rock. Its lyrics convey violent imagery of drowning and death, while the fusion of Mayberry’s shimmering falsettos and Smith’s moodier, more harrowing vocals make the chorus crash with thrillingly electric power. ‘Lullabies’ is sweeter and glassier, with Mayberry’s angelic melodies creating a hypnotic effect in the chorus, yet similarly, troubled imagery is depicted: “I’ve lost my appetite / Drinking the pesticide”. 

Much of the album evokes the fantastical, dreamlike quality of horror cult movies, in which claustrophobia is an underlying theme. In ‘Violent Delights’, the frantic energy of the synths and drums creates a feeling of panicked urgency and despair: “I couldn’t scream, I couldn’t cry”. The richly theatrical ‘Nightmares’ echoes this sensation: “Now I’m living the nightmare again / And it won’t end”.

This horror encapsulated by the fictional world of film is juxtaposed with the horror of real life, and particularly, the horror of the female experience. Being the sole woman out of the trio, which, itself, navigates an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry, Mayberry has routinely been the target of “screen violence” in the form of misogynistic attacks from online trolls. ‘He Said She Said’ voices this frustration at being objectified and scrutinised by the male gaze. “Be sad but don’t be depressed”, “Look good but don’t be a mess” are just some of the inconsistent demands that society expects women to meet. “I feel like I’m losing my mind”: the dizzy echo of the chorus is an explosion of pent-up frustration. Indeed, Screen Violence feels innovative in its centering of the female narrative, a contrast to the bulk of contemporary music in which women are reduced to mere subject matter. One of the album’s most visual tracks, ‘Final Girl’ borrows the horror film trope of the female victim, conjuring up disturbing imagery of female violence: “Don’t want to find your daughter in a body bag / So I need to get out now while most of me is still intact”. 

Although Chvrches’ latest album evokes a darkness not shared by any of its predecessors, an underlying current of hope runs through the record: “I filled my bed with my regrets / but it hasn’t killed me yet”.

The richly visual chorus of ‘Final Girl’ reimagines the horror film victim as its heroine, while in the face of 21st-century misogyny, Mayberry insists “I don’t need to be desired”. Ultimately, there is a resolve to persevere in the face of “screen violence”  

Words by Alice Forbes


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