CHVRCHES’ ‘The Bones Of What You Believe’: Album Review

Carl Williott | September 24, 2013 6:00 am
Just about a year ago, three unassuming Scots emerged fully formed with a confident synth-pop behemoth called “Lies,” and it was the straight fucking truth. Plenty of new artists can capture pop perfection with one buzzy track, sure. But CHVRCHES did it again on their follow-up (and first official single) “The Mother We Share,” a gem that was as bright and infectious as “Lies” was pounding and confrontational. With that opening combo, CHVRCHES staked their claim as the littlest big synth-pop act of 2013.

Still fresh a year later, both those songs found their way onto the trio’s debut album The Bones Of What You Believe (out ), alongside other impossibly melodic, impossibly vibrant bits of poptronica. Each element in every song on this first full-length sounds vital and perfectly mixed: the drums, whether real or digital, land with guttural force and snap with purpose, the vocals bend and chirp at will, the synths slice one moment and melt the next.

The result is something just as urgent and immediate as anything the hordes of laptop-wielding, MPC-mashing DJ/producers are injecting into everything from “Starships” to “Work Bitch” to Flo Rida and the rest, but without any of the tiring histrionics and cliched siren crescendos and boilerplate drops. CHVRCHES avoid these rave-y tropes because they have an ear for ’80s minimalism, and so they’ve managed to meld that decade’s version of pop’s future with EDM’s version of pop’s now. But their greatest trick is that they achieved this balance while slathering their songs with unapologetically catchy, radio-ready hooks. These guys have their cake, and painstakingly decorate it, and eat it.

Part of that ability comes from the versatility offered by Lauren Mayberry‘s voice. There’s a fair amount of acidity and vulnerability in these songs, but her Elvish vocals are either chipper or melancholic, depending on your angle, which begets that “Pumped Up Kicks” effect wherein you don’t even realize what you’re saying as you sing along. (“Gun” opens thusly: “You had better run from me / With everything you own / ‘Cause I am gonna come for you / With all that I have / I am gonna break you down / To tiny, tiny parts.” In someone else’s hands, that’s creepy and psychotic. Here, it’s sweetly menacing, a dare.)

The rich pastel synths only add to this obfuscation, and even when the band takes a darker turn, things that should be abrasive and cold are re-purposed for warmer textures. The post-chorus on “Lungs” comprises a fuzzy, serrated synth line and chopped vocals, but it ends up being thrilling rather than jarring. “Lies” and “Science/Visions” are aggressive, in-your-face synth stomps that take the warped vox and blown-out sonics to full song length. Throw in the bilious lyrics, and it’s a witch’s brew that, through sheer strength of songwriting, they turn into a sweet nectar.

Because CHVRCHES never sacrifice a good melody, there’s not much unpredictability or structural risk-taking here. Even the ballads, for the most part, eventually blossom into blissful anthems (the final third of “Tether” is the best M83 song Anthony Gonzalez never wrote). The number of unexpected moments can be counted on one hand: in addition to “Lungs” as a whole, there’s the 20-second coda of “Night Sky” and the decision to close the album with a subdued, Mayberry-less ballad.

But when the arrangements are so airtight, and the melodies and pacing so damn evocative, there’s not much room, nor need, to deviate. AlunaGeorge earlier this year released a debut that similarly warped sterile electronic sounds into a hooky-yet-clinical pop template with a saccharine vocalist, but their effort seemed hermetic at times. What separates CHVRCHES is their ability to make each song into a high drama, bite-sized epic, with the waves of synths and choruses commanding your emotions like the sorcerer’s apprentice in Fantasia.

Even in these poptimistic days, people tend to think that when a pop song is catchy or instantly gratifying, it’s less likely to stand up against deeper analysis, that it’s empty calories. But sometimes you just want a straightforward song that stirs something within you right fucking now and you don’t care why or how it achieves this. The best songs aren’t the ones that require deeper examination, they’re the ones that invite it. And that’s the type of song this band makes — songs you’ll fall for based on completely superficial “ear candy” reasons at first, but that reveal more quirks and substance when revisited (like the water-down-a-grate synths near the end of “We Sink”). CHVRCHES’ songs are exquisitely compressed and layered, but they’re also completely approachable. So you can appreciate The Bones Of What You Believe at face value, just an entertaining flash of activity akin to a flipbook. Or you can really look, to see the detail and expertise that went into the illusion, allowing you to fully appreciate it.

Idolator Score: 4/5

Carl Williott

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