I was born in ’70’s and grew up in the ’80’s with a fondness for synthy pop like the Eurythmics, Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys and so many others. Practically every song on the radio relied heavily on sythesizers. It was wonderful. Even when my beloved heavy metal bands (now called hair metal) came along, half of them used synthesizers and keyboards. They were almost as inescapable as vocals. Eventually, though, they were more or less phased out. I remember a girl who sat next to me in junior high writing “synthesizers suck” on her desk. Only she spelled synthesizers wrong. Getting to my point, when CHVRCHES released their 2013 debut The Bones of What You Believe, I should have immediately been reminded of the ’80’s music I grew up with. But I wasn’t. Their sound felt new and refreshing. Not to mention invigorating. It was only when I had to analyze it for my review that I started noticing those influences. And I wasn’t the only one. Suddenly, synthesizers started worming their way into mainstream pop in a big way. Now even the go-to hit songwriters are using synth left and right. Just check out Taylor Swift’s 1989 or Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion. Both albums, which are wonderful, were co-written by hit-makers and are quite synthy, something which CHVRCHES are surely aware of. They’d have to live in a bubble not to be. But knowing that so many artists are borrowing their sound doesn’t seem to have had a dramatic effect on them. On their new album, Every Open Eye, they just keep on doing what they do, except for the fact that they’ve improved in all the ways you’d hope a band would on their sophomore release.
One of the biggest differences between The Bones of What You Believe and Every Open Eye is that the new album has much deeper lyrics, perhaps brought on by frontwoman Lauren Mayberry’s battles against the misogyny in this world. She has a razor sharp tongue and I find myself nodding in agreement with everything the proud feminist says. And she has plenty to say and does not hesitate to say it. (She reminds me of Garbage’s brutally honest Shirley Manson in that way. Coincidentally, both singers are Scottish and are in bands where the other members men. Additionally, every member is a producer in both bands.)
The album’s opening track, “Never Ending Circles,” would seem to sarcastically cheer to “just another no man,” which could be seen as another man who disagrees with everything she says. “You give me everything I never deserved,” she sings with a bit more confidence than on the last album, almost like a threatened snake spitting venom. On the second track, “Leave a Trace,” she sings, “And I know I need to feel relief / And I know you’ll never fold / But I believe nothing that I’m told.” It could be viewed as a song about a relationship gone sour, but it could also be a response to her critics. Knowing how brilliant she is, I suspect that it’s both. What I know for sure is that “Never Ending Circles” and “Leave a Trace” are a one-two punch to your senses, sure to put an instant smile on your face, and they’re easily as addictive as chocolate, the difference being that chocolate tickles your taste buds and CHVRCHES tickle your ear buds.
It’s always a treat when an artist releases an album and you discover that the best tracks are songs they hadn’t previously unveiled on Youtube or Soundcloud, etc. I feel that way about Every Open Eye. My favorite song on the album is called “Make Them Gold,” which has rapid, almost anxious, beats and loops racing throughout the verses, albeit with slower, calming synth gliding overhead. That alone is enough to hook you, but then when it hits the chorus it’s like a space shuttle launching. (We have lift off!) “We are made of our longest days / We are falling but alone / We will take the best parts of ourselves / And make them gold,” Mayberry sings beautifully, bursting with enthusiasm. It’s easily the best anthem CHVRCHES have created thus far. It’s not unlike Garbage’s classic “When I Grow Up,” which also packs a mighty potent sing-along chorus.
You could certainly say that Mayberry is someone who’s taken very seriously as an artist, and many of her lyrics on Every Open Eye would seem to merit that. But she also has a very fun side. Obviously. CHVRCHES songs wouldn’t sound so exuberant otherwise. One of the album’s most cheerful songs is “Empty Threat,” which packs powerful drum (pad?) beats. “Taking back and empty threat / More than you could ever know,” Mayberry sings merrily. “Take it back with no regrets / I was better off when I was on your side / And I was holding on.”
Another noteworthy track is “Clearest Blue,” which starts off sounding like the opening of Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” and continues to loop that familiar bit throughout much of the song. During the first two minutes and twenty seconds, it’s off in the background, but then it suddenly rushes to the front and becomes as sonorous as anything on the album. In fact, it probably is the record’s loudest piece. More importantly, is how climactic and powerful it is. The song does have a fine chorus, but this amazing part is even catchier. (If people aren’t jumping up and down when they play it at Boston Calling this weekend then it’s only because they’re too inebriated. And I’m sure they’ll play it because this song was clearly designed for big festivals.)
While Mayberry gets most of the attention, props must also be given to her bandmates, Ian Cook (synth, bass, guitar, backing vocals) and Martin Doherty (synth, samplers, backing and lead vocals). Mayberry contributes some synth and sampler work, but CHVRCHES would not be the same without Cook and Doherty, who co-write and co-produce all of the songs with her. When the three of them gather in the band’s own studio where they’ve recorded both albums, that’s where their great chemistry and remarkable talents come together and result it pure magic. Veritable, audible magic. No matter how much they might be inspired by any other artists, like those ’80’s cats, their sound is always unique and far mightier than whatever anyone else is doing with synth — or even pop — these days. (No offense to Taylor Swift and Carly Rae Jepsen.)
Album of the year, no doubt.