In releasing their debut single, “The Mother We Share,” Chvrches inadvertently invited a long chain of comparisons to Swedish synth-pop provocateurs The Knife. The similarities are pretty easy to detect — though its title sounds like a double-reverse Babelfish re-translation of “We Share Our Mother’s Health,” the song itself bears a stronger resemblance to the warmly infectious “Heartbeats” from 2003’s Deep Cuts. On closer inspection, though, “Heartbeats” is essentially the only link between the two (aside from odd character substitutions), The Knife’s broader discography teeming with twisted voice manipulations, abrasive experiments, an “opera,” and most recently — though it wasn’t out when Glasgow’s Chvrches first showed up on listeners’ radar — the massively ambitious and anarchic industrial grooves of this year’s Shaking the Habitual.
Next single “Recover” confirmed what “The Mother We Share” suggested — that Chvrches aren’t defiantly chameleonic, sometimes antagonistic performance artists. They’re a pop group. More specifically, they’re an amazing pop group, and one whose lighter elements far outweigh their dark ones, no matter how many times they’ve taken a ride through Midnight City. At the center of “Mother” is a tortured, melancholy sentiment (“The mother we share will never keep our cold hearts from calling”), but there’s more than enough warmth in its gorgeously layered melody to counteract the sadness and frustration.
This push and pull between wounded hearts and rich nourishing sounds runs through the whole of Chvrches’ The Bones of What You Believe, the trio’s debut album. And if you didn’t pick up on the clue earlier, it has much more in common with the most recent efforts by French synth-gazers M83 than it does with that group’s plague-mask donning neighbors to the north — the male backing vocals even sound remarkably like Anthony Gonzalez’s at times. Chvrches aim for big, immersive, even universal sounds. That lonely hearts might be responsible for these songs doesn’t mean they aren’t intended to bring people together.
“Mother” and “Recover” each gave listeners an impressive preview of Chvrches’ capabilities last winter, the latter building upon its predecessor’s successes with an even bigger chorus that aims straight for those emotional triggers. These singles — each of which appear on The Bones of What You Believe — lay the foundation for the impressively big-budget sounds on the band’s debut, all of which feel like part of a cohesive whole, despite the fact that just about every song here could be its own dynamic, standout single.
Two of the strongest tracks on the album — “We Sink” and “Gun” — arrive early, their slightly more aggressive lyrical tone striking a contrast against their dreamy, major-key approach. On “We Sink,” singer Lauren Mayberry redistributes her wounds with a vengeance on the chorus, “I’ll be a thorn in your side/ Till you die/ I’ll be a thorn in your side/ For always.” And yet her vulnerability is presented through a dangerous metaphor on “Gun,” rising to an infectious refrain of “I will be a gun/ and it’s you I’ve come for.” It’s such a bright, direct slice of electronic pop that the bitterness and seamy subtext is practically subliminal.
So much of The Bones of What You Believe comprises big productions of electronic pop grandeur that when a lower key or more abrasive approach comes along, it stands out. “Tether” is one such track, kicking off with guitar rather than synth, and building up to its powerful climax more gradually. “Night Sky” is another, rumbling with sparse pulses rather than broader neon tones. And whether in this slightly more understated form or pushing forward at full steam, the songs on The Bones of What You Believe are all mesmerizing and sonically rich. They feel entirely modern, but might have existed in another life as tracks on a John Hughes soundtrack. They’re driven by emotions, but sound crafted to be spun on dancefloors. In other words, this is pop utopia.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.