Review Summary: Surprisingly engaging synth-pop
Earlier this year, Scottish trio CHVRCHES dropped ‘Gun’, and in doing so gave their rapid rise to prominence all the ammunition it needed. The BBC had already pointed at them as one to watch in 2013, and ‘Lies’, ‘The Mother We Share’, and ‘Recover’ had been released earlier. But it was the confidence, self-assuredness, and sheer catchiness of ‘Gun’ that really threw CHVRCHES into the spotlight. Here was a band with experienced instrumentalists supporting a young, talented singer, and the result is a record that sounds fresh without lapsing into naivety.
Lauren Mayberry’s lyrics can ring with an occasionally jarring adolescent angst, but also include a 25 year-old’s cynicism - or realism, depending on your viewpoint - that adds an often vehement aggression into the mix, for example: “All that’s golden is never real / and I won’t play fair this time”. One might get bogged down in the negativity of it all if not for instances such as the synth line which breaks out at the end of Tether. It’s exactly the sort of moment for which this genre exists, providing a euphoric bliss that is all the more powerful for being layered with the line ‘I feel incapable of seeing the end.’
‘Night Sky’ veers into the more mainstream territory of pop, and might deceive you into thinking you’ve accidentally started listening to commercial radio, though its utterly superfluous coda sounds anything but commercial. It’s a reminder that this is extremely accessible music trying to do enough to stay interesting, and The Bones Of What You Believe is a success in this respect. While anyone who has been following their rise to fame will already be quite familiar with most of the album’s highlights - this is merely a symptom of the iTunes epoch - CHVRCHES do better than most bands in this situation, as no songs could really be described as being ‘filler;’ every track has its own aims and executes them well. Even towards the record’s back end, ‘Science/Visions’ and ‘Lungs’ are sufficiently different and ambitious enough, that if handled by a lesser band might have given the album a few significant weak points. But CHVRCHES take this new territory as an opportunity to thrive in varied ways, with Lungs’ staccato restlessness a particularly striking standout.
Halfway through the album on ‘Under The Tide’, Martin Doherty sings ‘head up, keep holding,’ and you have to wonder if he’s addressing Mayberry, pleading with her to maintain some sense of positivity amidst the anguish. By the end of the chorus, that track drifts into the sort of guy/girl tune The Naked and Famous have been nailing for a few years. Though Doherty doesn’t seem to be blessed with much vocal ability, that doesn’t altogether matter here, as there’s always enough progression to focus attention onto the inevitable return of Mayberry’s sharp voice.
That awareness of the band’s own strengths is a key feature of the record, as they know they sound best when their tracks are fully realised and completely packed out, to which opener ‘The Mother We Share’ attests. Unless you’re The XX, going down the sparse minimalism route probably isn’t going to work, and Doherty and Iain Cook ensure Mayberry’s vocals are always given enough body to seem relevant, while she sings with enough honesty and vulnerability to seem relatable.