Glassnote | discogs.com
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The Bones of What You Believe struck like lightning.
CHVRCHES’ debut album was a bolt from the blue, an airtight parcel of laser-bright synths that cauterised the very ground, scorching sand into jagged plumes of glass.
Lasers that pool, and coil, and ebb like a living thing, pulses of ions, flashes of heat, veins of electricity, thoroughly deserving on an entry of my Top Ten Albums I Wrote About In 2016 list.
You wouldn’t expect so earthly, so mundane, so profane a phenomenon as the sophomore slump to befall a force of nature, but here we are.
The challenges of writing a sequel to your life’s work within the industry-standard two to three years have felled scores upon scores of musicians, very few of whom were working under the additional pressure of the widespread critical acclaim that met as seminal an oeuvre as Bones. CHVRCHES swept up the charts on the 2013 tsunami of peak EDM. But since then, the wave has subsided as pop maximalism fell out of vogue, and CHVRCHES did not surf the aftershocks to the smoothly churning currents of slinky, skittering minimalism. They remain anchored in an oceanic no-man’s-land, neither defiantly calling down thunderstorms, nor staking out freshly fashionable deep-water territory. This is not to say that 2015’s Every Open Eye and last week’s Love Is Dead have nothing to recommend. But nobody could deny that their highlights have grown fewer and further between compared to the glowing siren-call of CHVRCHES’ first album.
Virgin · Goodbye | discogs.com
Strobelights function best at their brightest, in harsh crimsons and ultramarines, webs and grids of luminous threads, refracted through sapphire and ruby. You can’t dance to grey.
Bones is a study in contrast, stretching tension between irrepressibly radiant melodies and cold, mechanical instrumentation. Lauren Mayberry’s shark-eyed delivery, in tandem with pre-programmed loops of synthesiser and drum machine, draw out some of the most exciting moments in recent pop history. A jaunty headbanger that sneaks close, then chills the blood: “Hide / Hide / I have burned your bridges”. A keening post-mortem wail: “And if I recover / Will you be my comfort?”. And on the album’s finest track, a stuttered, twisted offer of compassion: “The mother we share will never keep our cold hearts from thawing”.
Eyes steps away from the brilliance of Bones, and instead of course-correcting, Love takes another step in the same direction. Each blurs the boundaries established so persuasively on Bones, muddying the contrast and loosening the tension. As I say, this doesn’t mean the later two albums are entirely lacking in highlights. Eyes marries a devastating kiss-off to a killer package of riffs on ‘Leave a Trace’ — “You talk far too much / For someone so unkind / […] / Make sure to leave a trace of a man” — and features a precipitous drop as the resolution of ‘Clearest Blue’ suddenly snaps into focus, thrusting it sharply skyward. And Love, despite itself, boasts a few surprises of its own, scooping the bottom half out of the bridge on the stomping ‘Get Out’, and unexpectedly and delightfully shifting gears into double-time on ‘Wonderland’.
Virgin · Goodbye | discogs.com
I don’t begrudge CHVRCHES for expanding their musical palette, for exploring new colours and textures. If you ask me there’s just as much material to cover downwards and upwards, rather than just sideways, but that’s beside the point. They’re shying away from their strengths as musicians, to be sure — like Kimbra, like Katy, like Florence — but they’re doing so in order to try something different rather than just recreate the runaway success of Bones, and that is to be respected, even if that something different doesn’t particularly appeal to me personally.
In fact, I’m certain that there’s a shard or two of rose-coloured glass colouring my esteem of Bones. I was a little late to the CHVRCHES party. They happened to fall into my lap, vibrant and orange and demanding attention, like the leaves brightening in colour as a prelude to fluttering to the ground in clusters and droves. But the drizzly autumn of 2014 could not dampen my spirits. Freshly graduated from high school, I had just got my shiny new very first laptop, and had embarked on a project to expand and diversify my own personal music library. Part of that involved scouring the best-of lists of the major music publications, and Bones popped up on every single one of them. It has since entered into high rotation in my carefully and obsessively curated network of iTunes playlists.
Bones is a little spark of naïve, youthful, world-oyster optimism that defined that period of transition, a spark that inevitably fades in time. It still clings to CHVRCHES like lint in the dryer of history, and to Foster the People and Imogen Heap and The Kooks, it adheres to the fabulous discography of St. Vincent, it fluffs up the dark and juicy introduction to Glass Animals, and great tufts protrude from my prized collection of Star Wars soundtracks.
The realities of adulthood are starting to set in now at the very wise and mature age of twenty-two and three quarters, but CHVRCHES’ excellent first album will forever remain the same, a flare on the ever-shrinking horizon, a beacon shining through the gathering storm.
Perhaps their later albums could not live up to the weight of the expectations I had already subconsciously laid on them before I had heard a single note. I certainly still feel that Eyes and Love are weaker, I just feel dishonest not including the caveat that I may be partially reverse-engineering my proof.
They say that lightning never strikes twice. This is a myth, and a lie, as easily deciphered by anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of the physics of electricity. It’s child’s play to build a conductor. Something higher than its surroundings, something made of metal. It can be as simple as tying a key to a kite, or as monumental as taking a leaf from the Babylonians’ book of blasphemy.
It’s never too late. Lightning can always strike again.