LOVE IS DEAD by CHVRCHES
Favorite Tracks: “Graffiti,” “Graves,” “God’s Plan,” “Wonderland”
The best moment on CHVRCHES’ LOVE IS DEAD comes near the end of the album on an unassuming track called “God’s Plan.” The Scottish synth-spinners hand over vocal duties to Martin Doherty, who adequately burrs over some climbing synthesizers and intense drums. Behind an Underworld-esque build with frontwoman Lauren Mayberry on backup vocals, they’re able to peek their heads above the clouds to see sunshine spill out over an intense ‘90s techno landscape. When they actually hit paydirt in the clouds, when the chilly dance beats open themselves up and reveal passion burning bright, it’s a moment unlike any other on LOVE IS DEAD and it feels, promisingly, like something no one other than CHVRCHES could be making right now.
“God’s Plan” is a legitimately great shift in sound for a band that spends most of their third album lost in stale ideas and shruggable left turns, but it works because it’s bullishly simple. Doherty’s vocals demand so much less attention than Mayberry’s, and because the song isn’t built around a big chorus, it can continue building. The other great ascending ‘90s dance beats on LOVE IS DEAD appear during closer “Wonderland,” but that track is bogged down with a soaring, over-the-top hook that self-aggrandises Mayberry’s role as lead singer at the sacrifice of some nifty, racing trance instrumentals.
It’s a complicated problem to have, and the group’s tendency to write around Mayberry’s stadium-ready vocal productions hinders a lot of LOVE IS DEAD. The highlight of the group’s sophomore record, EVERY OPEN EYE, was “Keep You On My Side,” another pounding stop-for-no-one dance track, and even though that record has aged fairly well despite seeming like somewhat of a misstep on its release, it worked best when it was firing off driving big house and progressive synthpop while disguising it as straight pop music (“Empty Thread,” “Bury It,” “Clearest Blue”). For reasons that are hopefully going to be reevaluated for LP3, the band’s game plan is built around sweeping, U2-style choruses and big layered vocal performances from Mayberry, using “The Mother We Share” as a kind of template for most tracks. On LOVE IS DEAD, the joy in hearing that formula reworked over and over finally runs out.
Putting its best foot forward immediately, opener “Graffiti” offers a kind of best-of-CHVRCHES sound, a starry-eyed nostalgic pop ballad that explodes when Mayberry hits the hook “We wrote our names along the bathroom walls / Graffitiing our hearts across the stalls.” In a lot of ways, despite being a pale imitation of previous songs, it’s one of LOVE IS DEAD’s stronger tracks, fun yet simple. But we hear the sameness of that sweeping mid-tempo pop ballad all over LOVE IS DEAD, starting with the following tracks “Get Out” and the minimal “Deliverance.” This singular idea works better some places than others. “Graves” channels a lot of the same juju as “God’s Plan” and “Wonderland,” and even if it trips itself up occasionally, it’s a worthy showcase for Mayberry. But tracks like “Never Say Die,” “Forever,” as well as “Get Out” and “Deliverance,” are all interchangeable to the degree that if you like one, you’ll probably just like all of them, dizzying and over-the-top as they are.
Then there are the times when the group try and go low-key, an idea that on paper would work if it didn’t seem like there was such a stark lack of energy. “My Enemy,” a duet with The National’s Matt Berniger, is messy, plodding along with drums and production that seem poised to explode into one of Mayberry’s signature spiraling choruses before ignoring the prospect altogether, resulting in a stale and uninteresting waste of chemistry. The stripped-down “Really Gone” and its interlude followup, “ii,” are nice minimalist ideas for a different album, one where the best moments aren’t heavily reliant on big production moments and an over-commitment to pop presence.
I’m not sure where this band goes after LOVE IS DEAD, although I was never really sure where they were supposed to go after THE BONES OF WHAT YOU BELIEVE either. Neither that debut or the band themselves seemed poised for longevity, especially when the debut’s best tracks by a country mile were its lead singles. Here we are two releases removed from their debut, and while they’ve flirted with embracing conventions from more exciting styles of music (EDM in particular), they never seem to commit hard enough to them to make it a worthwhile experiment. On talent alone CHVRCHES have a second act in them, but LOVE IS DEAD is a supremely uninteresting and tired continuation of the first act, and I’d like to take a lengthy intermission.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend