Chvrches has perhaps stretched their sound to its logical breaking point.
While their endearing brand of synth-pop has certainly grown more polished and assured, Chvrches has perhaps stretched their sound to its logical breaking point. On their third album, Love Is Dead, they reach a sweet spot in balancing the chasm between what is charming to niche dance music fans and what is necessary to penetrate the Billboard charts, but then they keep going.
The Scottish trio is at their best when alternating between icy stillness and big, broad bursts of warmth. Their first few big singles, like “Gun” and “The Mother We Share” sounded like an anti-matter pop take on the Knife, replacing their menacing electronic sound with something smoother and easier to sing along to. Through their first two full-lengths, they’ve refined their sonic identity, inching closer and closer to something like a breakthrough. Here, with an album produced largely by Greg Kurstin, they may have found it, but at some expense.
The Chvrches fans have thus far loved is still here, especially in cuts like “Get Out,” with its earworm hook from on high, and “Forever,” with its prom night synth runs and huge hook. The A-side is stacked with strong singles that perfectly distill the band’s appeal, probably best exemplified in “Deliverance,” a moody, soon-to-be festival favorite where frontwoman Lauren Mayberry’s vocals sound as confident as ever. These tracks aren’t noticeable deviations from what has come before, but rather strengthened examples of what the band does well.
This half of the record also houses “My Enemy,” a duet with the National’s Matt Berninger that would be the best song on the album if it weren’t for Berninger. The chorus is one of the band’s best and it comes at a point on the record where slowing things down a bit and wringing maximum emotion from the proceedings is definitely the right move, but Berninger’s voice just doesn’t blend well with this synthetic soundscape, coming off flat and bland, especially in contrast to Mayberry’s performance.
Along with later track “God’s Plan,” with lead vocals from multi-instrumentalist Martin Doherty, it’s a clear-cut example of how vital Mayberry’s presence is to the Chvrches formula. She’s one of the most distinct, recognizable singers in pop at the moment, and sidelining her, even for a duet or a random B-side, feels like a disastrous experiment.
The real issue on the album comes with “Miracle,” a song that will very probably perform well on the charts and catch on with a certain crowd, but it feels like such a dud. On the verses here, Mayberry seems to be aping any number of homogenous pop vocalists, before a clunky, EDM hook kicks in with the same blunt force Imagine Dragons regularly brings to car commercials and bad movie trailers. “Heaven/Hell” is similarly reductive, but not as nefarious.
But this second act cluster of tracks suggests that Chvrches could easily succeed within that chart space if they were so inclined. Are they really going to move into that space full time? Hopefully, in the pursuit for more radio dominance, the line is drawn here, and no further.