It’s always impressive when a band is actually able to live up to the expectations they’ve set by their absence.
It’s a tale as old as time: a beloved band promises a new album, but never actually delivers and the promise is broken. It comes in many forms: either in the form of sparse updates containing enough information to keep you strung along (Chinese Democracy is the famous example, but also The Wrens’ follow-up to The Meadowlands and Dr. Dre’s Detox) or simple silence (Daft Punk, Fiona Apple, My Bloody Valentine, The Avalanches, Scott Walker – this list is truly huge). Whether you prefer the occasional glimmer of hope versus complete radio silence is up to you, but either way, it’s always impressive when a band is actually able to live up to the expectations they’ve set by their absence.
Which brings us to Portland’s beloved aestheticians Chromatics and Dear Tommy. Every year since the announcement of their follow-up to Kill for Love has been a frustrating string of broken promises, one-off singles, and reports of near-death experiences leading to the destruction of 25,000 CD/vinyl copies to keep us wondering if Dear Tommy would ever see the light of day. Then, out of the blue on a lazy Tuesday in October, the band announced the imminent release of Closer to Grey, and not Dear Tommy, as though it was entirely normal. The announcement almost felt like the band were trolling the mere concept of album hype, or perhaps they knew that living up to that would be a monumental task.
Closer to Grey opens in arguably the cheekiest way imaginable: the ticking of a clock, and a dreamy (if mildly foreboding) cover of “The Sound of Silence,” frontperson Ruth Radelet’s ever-pristine voice ushering us back into the world of Chromatics. They’ll come back later with another cover, Jesus & Mary Chain’s “On the Wall,” rendered here with motorik beats and guitars drenched in reverb, perhaps the most noticeable guitar work on the whole record (outside of the brief “Through the Looking Glass”). Nitpickers might be upset that the band devoted time to other people’s songs, but it serves as a nice reminder of the fact that Chromatics don’t exist in a vacuum, and the act of covering these bands is an exercise in making clear the music responsible for their continued existence.
The years gone have been good to the band, as Closer is their best-sounding record they’ve made yet, largely devoid of the griminess that made Kill For Love so compelling. Lesser bands would suffer, but in the capable hands of guitarist/producer Johnny Jewel, every song’s sheen sounds immaculate. This doesn’t mean it sounds sterile, though, and these songs are anything but. They’re breezy and still feel remarkably organic, while showcasing the exact right amount of cool, and know exactly how to shift you where they want you: the triple threat of “You’re No Good,” “Closer to Grey,” and “Twist the Knife” is a purely addicting sugar rush that knows exactly when to pull back within each song, while “Touch Red” and “Light as A Feather” shift into a more hypnotic, sultry mode to get your attention; pay close attention to how exhilarating the second-long break in the latter is once it roars back in full force.
And, like the best of Chromatics, Closer is a danceable album that doesn’t feel like a dance record, and thus fits into the spaces in your life perfectly. You needn’t worry about the fact that you won’t be able to put it on at your mid-July party – it pairs wonderfully with the crispness of autumn in the same way that the similarly-built Saturdays = Youth by M83 evokes the atmosphere of mid-October without even trying. It’s also catchy as hell, and you’ll find yourself singing along to the hooks of songs like “You’re No Good” and “Touch Red” – not to mention the painfully cool “Whispers in the Hall” – even on your first listen. It’s not without its weak moments, though, like the unnecessary and mildly annoying “Through the Looking Glass,” which derails the energy that flows between “Touch Red” and “Whispers in the Hall,” and the “Closer to Grey” reprise “Love Theme From Closer to Grey” does little to build on its twin. It also ends on an unsatisfactory note, with the overly saccharine “Wishing Well,” a bizarre endpoint for an album this slick.
Much like how Dr. Dre’s criminally-underrated return with Compton: The Soundtrack posed a bevy of maddening questions about the status of the long-fabled Detox, no matter how good Closer to Grey is, it doesn’t erase the wonder of when we may get the similarly (though by no means equally) mythic Dear Tommy. It’s tempting to just think of the somber “Move a Mountain” as Radelet’s ode to the absent Tommy, hopeful but realistic: “I’m starin’ out the window/ Waitin’ for you to call/ You won’t.” At this point, it doesn’t matter if we never get that album – at least we get Chromatics back, no worse for wear after their absence, and entirely capable of making music good enough for you to just forget about your expectations and groove along.