One way to get around the expectations attached to a highly anticipated and long-delayed album is to release another one entirely. Chromatics are just a few months shy of hitting five years since Dear Tommy was originally supposed to have been released—Valentine’s Day 2015—which got pushed back and pushed back some more, until Johnny Jewel found himself so frustrated with the album he and his band had made that he destroyed every copy that had been pressed so far. (Which, if true, was probably pretty expensive.) By that point, however, somewhere around half of the songs on the album’s tracklist had already been released in some form or another, and whatever shape Dear Tommy was supposed to take, it certainly would be molded into something different entirely after Jewel put the finishing touches on it. But those finishing touches are still yet to be heard, as Chromatics’ first album in seven years is an entirely separate album titled Closer to Grey.
Don’t mistake this for looking a gift horse in the mouth. Any new music from Chromatics is a good thing, no matter what the album is titled or how much baggage is attached to it. And in some ways it’s preferable that what the Portland dream-pop band has delivered is something nobody expected. Releasing an album of previously unreleased and, for that matter, previously unannounced music feels as much like an act of preserving one’s sanity as it is of showing that the band, at least for now, has moved on. Where they’ve arrived is somewhere that still sounds a lot like the music they released on 2007′s Night Drive and 2012′s Kill for Love, but with fewer indulgent Auto-Tune exercises, fewer moments of sharp-edged post-punk, and more warm, gentle ballads. It’s not an epic—it’s made for two sides of vinyl—and if there’s a conceptual narrative, it’s not the central focus. It’s just a synth-pop album that’s meant to be fun to listen to, and on that point they’ve delivered an unqualified success.
The twinkle of keyboard and disco pulse of “You’re No Good” are immediate reassurances that Chromatics are still committed to making the melancholy, late-night dance music that marked their previous two full-lengths, and they’re still quite good at it. The shimmering guitars of “Closer to Grey” prove likewise with their penchant for romantically twinkling goth-pop, while the woozy synthesizer tones of “Twist the Knife” show them easing toward more psychedelic textures, yet ones structured within the kind of midtempo pop pulse that makes up the framework for most of their best singles. Familiar, yes, but so far so good.
It’s toward the center of the album where their songs grow vastly more interesting. “Light as a Feather” is eerier, more atmospheric, spectral synths floating around a beat that’s the most boom bap they’ve ever sounded. Were it not for Ruth Radelet’s sweetly detached vocals, it’d be a Mobb Deep song. By contrast, “Move A Mountain” is an entirely beatless lullaby that’s nothing but soft edges and gentle moments of reflection. Though it’s aesthetically well within their wheelhouse, it’s so warm and pleasant, it feels strangely out of character for a band that played Twin Peaks. Yet the best song is “Whispers in the Hall,” an ominously oozing giallo-pop hallucination that does more with less, and more effectively delivers a satisfying creep-out in time for Halloween.
One other thing that Closer to Grey delivers more of is covers, dedicating 12 out of this album’s 45 minutes to Simon & Garfunkel and Jesus and Mary Chain songs. Which they do well enough, but they didn’t have to do more than once, especially after good-to-great Neil Young and Kate Bush covers (plus a fun Cyndi Lauper cover and a somewhat less necessary Bruce Springsteen cover). The opening-track placement of “The Sound of Silence” after the tick of a clock at least shows the band’s own self-awareness and subtle humor, given the wait that preceded the album’s release, though it does feel a little bit like a gimmick. It’s perhaps a minor complaint considering the 33 minutes of strong new original Chromatics material that it’s attached to, and sharing something brand new but highly enjoyable instead of getting lost in trying to achieve perfection with a project that already seems doomed is perhaps the healthier course of action. Closer to Grey isn’t a masterpiece, just an excellent album that’s refreshingly accessible and remarkably easy to binge.