How many songs have I ruined with too many spins? Too many. Most, probably. You could say it’s my fault, that I scrubbed the sheen away myself. But then there are those outliers, those songs that persevere, retaining their resonance no matter how many times I sing along. The Pixies’ “Debaser”, for one. “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens, probably. Tanlines’ brilliant “All Of Me” emerged as last year’s contender. And this year, it’s “The Mother We Share”, a deceptively layered slice of electro-pop from Scottish outfit CHVRCHES.
Several singles followed throughout the past year — “Recover”, “Lies”, “Gun” — and with every one I found myself similarly enthralled, but worried that, like Tanlines did on the aptly titled Mixed Emotions, CHVRCHES was feeding us gourmet appetizers to distract from the Lean Cuisine constituting the main course. The release of the underwhelming Recover EP didn’t dispel those worries, with its takeaway seeming to be that the original “Recover” was better than anyone’s remix of it.
Thankfully, the long-awaited The Bones of What You Believe doesn’t just check its considerable hype, it transcends it. By corralling everything in vogue with today’s soundscape — ethereal atmospherics, pulsing synths, ’80s throwbacks — with infectious hooks and the emphatic vocals of Lauren Mayberry, CHVRCHES has created 12 pop songs that are as accessible as they are layered. And though the pre-released singles stand out, excellent songs like “Tether” and “We Sink” prove that the trio’s got plenty more tricks up their sleeve.
Mayberry and co.’s debt to ’80s horror soundtracks, which they cited as an influence in our interview earlier this year, is one example. See the ominous choir of moaning synths closing “Night Sky”, or the tinfoil swish beneath the chorus of “We Sink” that could easily be sheets of rain crashing against your bedroom window. “Science/Visions” finds bandmates Iain Cook and Martin Doherty wheezing out backing vocals that, upon first listen, sounded scarily like “burn, burn,” and “kill, kill” (it’s actually “hear, hear” and “feel, feel”). Here and elsewhere, the skittering, neon-tinged synth lines could be mistaken for songs off any Nightmare on Elm Street soundtrack.
Even sonically upbeat tracks like “Gun” contain traces of menace in their words (“I will be a gun and it’s you I’ll come for”), which is fitting, considering the album’s lyrics primarily concern themselves with relationships that are either crumbling or reigniting under duress. Vengeful tracks like “We Sink” and “Gun” sound like the bloody aftermath to “Recover”, where Mayberry desperately urges a faceless companion to love her or leave her. Somewhere in between this narrative is “By the Throat”, which asserts that “all that’s golden is never real.” Simply put, these are not love songs.
That doesn’t mean some don’t feel like it. “Lungs” lifts out of the grimy depths of “Science/Visions” on a ladder made of candy canes. Mayberry’s voice sounds as effervescent as ever on the track, which surprises with a touch of alt-rock distortion and a looping vocal sample that wouldn’t be out of place on a Fatboy Slim record.
But, let’s get back to “The Mother We Share”: A swelling synth line ushers into the song, giving way to sharp fragments of Mayberry’s voice, chopped and assorted into jagged crystals that oscillate between left and right ear buds. The effect, disorienting and disarmingly beautiful, isn’t just the first thing heard on this record, it’s also the first thing many will ever hear from CHVRCHES. That’s a good thing; Mayberry’s voice is as vital an instrument as any other in the band’s arsenal, weaving throughout the band’s instrumentation with nary a seam to show for it. And, perhaps that’s why Cook and Doherty’s vocals, though capable, don’t resonate quite as much as Mayberry’s.
Hype bands live and die on the perseverance of that one earworm. But with The Bones Of What You Believe, CHVRCHES have distanced themselves from the flash-in-the-pan acts cluttering the blogosphere. Simply put, they’ve evolved from a hype band to something much more coveted: a great band.
Essential Tracks: “The Mother We Share”, “We Sink”, and “Tether”
Read our latest cover story on the Glasgow outfit by Steven Arroyo.
Feature artwork by Matthew Vidalis: