The Lowdown: CHVRCHES burst onto the mainstream music scene in 2013 with big synths, bigger hooks, and almost immediate international success. But there was also a sort of scrappy, confrontational passion to their first record and its follow-up, Every Open Eye, especially present in lead singer Lauren Mayberry’s vocal delivery, that made the music stick in ways that go beyond a typical well-constructed pop earworm. On their third full-length, Love Is Dead, the Scottish synth pop band go broader than ever before, embracing all the hallmarks of successful pop singles and abandoning much of the fierceness, attitude, and strangeness that made their past music feel unique and urgent.
The Good: The exuberant, nostalgic “Graffiti” and the punchy, political “Graves” have the most organic danceability, and they also benefit from being the most focused songs on the record. “Graffiti” delivers a vibrant, concrete image: teenagers scrawling their emotions on the walls of bathroom stalls. “Graves” offers scenes of bodies washing up on shores while the powerful and unfeeling hide away, and its surging chorus offers a perfect soundtrack for resistance.
The Bad: Tracks full of generalities and numbing repetition like “Never Say Die”, “Forever”, and “Deliverance” end up fading far, far into the background. “Miracle”, on the other hand, starts off as one of the most promising melodies and arrangements, but it ends up leaning into its worst impulses right about when the bass drops, making it stand out in a less desirable way.
One of the biggest disappointments on Love Is Dead is the sluggish duet “My Enemy”, featuring The National’s Matt Berninger. It’s not fun for me to say this. Mayberry and Berninger are two of today’s most interesting vocalists, and a CHVRCHES-The National collaboration with both parties at their bleak, acidic, sharp-edged peaks makes my heart flutter. But that’s not what the listener gets with “My Enemy”. Mayberry isn’t brash, and Berninger isn’t gloriously self-destructive. Over an anemic beat, they both sing like they’re delivering dispassionate solos in a high school choir.
The Verdict: Love Is Dead is a collection of songs about grand concepts like openness, heartbreak, disappointment, and generally growing up. But without the benefit of specificity or a sharp perspective, the result is that it may be the most impersonal record that CHVRCHES have ever produced. Pain without specificity sounds a lot like numbness.
Many of these songs will soar in arenas and on festival main stages. They’re expansive, epic, and Mayberry’s powerful voice never wavers. But that openness comes at a price, and throughout Love Is Dead, every time CHVRCHES have the chance to get stranger, messier, and more unique, they rein in their eccentricities, going cleaner and more general.
Essential Tracks: “Get Out”, “Graffiti”, and “Graves”