Published May 24, 2018Even as their popularity inched ever-closer to mainstream recognition, Chvrches always kept one foot planted firmly in the underground. That remains true on third album Love Is Dead. But this time out, that ground feels less firm, as the Scottish trio look to expand their musical worldview, if not their sonic palette.
Singer Lauren Mayberry made hay on the band's previous two records documenting broken hearts and calling out toxic relationships. Though hardly new lyrical territory, Mayberry's twist is to never dwell on the past. Rather, she's quick to call things what they are, take whatever life lesson she needs from the experience and move on: "Bury it and rise above," as it were.
Read a certain way, the lyrics on Love is Dead certainly continue that trend. "Graffiti," "Forever" and the sparse "Really Gone" all seem to be about those same topics. But, inspired by what she's called "a lack of empathy" in the world today, Mayberry is also looking beyond herself, projecting empowerment in the face of some ill-defined adversity. "They're leaving bodies in stairwells, washing up on the shore" she sings on "Graves," perhaps the record's most direct allusion to world events. "You can look away, while they're dancing on our graves. But I will stop at nothing." Unfortunately, many of the other songs on the record lack its specificity, and, though certainly still affecting, lose a bit of their power as a result.
Where Mayberry has widened her perspective, her bandmates, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty have narrowed theirs, with mixed results. The duo participated in a number of songwriting bootcamps for unnamed artists in their time between records, and the band worked with an outside producer — Greg Kurstin, who's manned the boards for everyone from Adele to Foo Fighters — for the first time in their career. You can hear the results: everything feels tighter, without a wasted note.
But we've heard all these sounds before: even as the hooks get stickier, there are few musical surprises, robbing the band of some of its much-needed idiosyncratic identity in the process. A perfect example is "Miracle," a fine track dragged down by its Imagine Dragons-aping chorus; likewise, "My Enemy," otherwise a standout, misuses Matt Berninger, digitally processing his signature baritone until it's unrecognizable. The National frontman's half of the duet with Mayberry could have easily fallen to Doherty, who takes lead on "God's Plan." As with his lead vocal contributions to previous records, it's the album's weakest link.
Love Is Dead is by no means a bad record — even in nitpicking its problems, I find myself drawn back to it time and again. So much goes right here, but in scrubbing their songs of imperfections, they've also magnified their flaws. Though not quite stuck in neutral, it will certainly please the band's ever-expanding fan base while not really moving the needle creatively enough to convince sceptics that their initial opinions were unfounded.
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