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Screen Violence by CHVRCHES: a refreshingly candid and dark return

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Indie synth-pop trio CHVRCHES, formed in Glasgow in 2011, had two amazing first albums: The Bones of What You Believe (2013) and Every Open Eye (2015). However, the follow-up, 2018’s Love Is Dead, was a disappointing third album. Love Is Dead’s lead single ‘Miracle’ sounded Imagine Dragons-like, while the rest of the songs were indistinguishable and half-hearted with the connection, individuality, and emotion of the last two albums no longer present. CHVRCHES’ lowest point was their sickly sweet Marshmello collaboration ‘Here With Me’, which was played to death that summer. It could have been sung by any artist – it was a tedious and soulless pop song and signified the loss of CHVRCHES’ bold personality exhibited on their first two records. This may scream music snob – CHVRCHES became more popular and therefore worse! – but from listening to any song on their first two albums compared to Love Is Dead it was painfully clear that CHVRCHES had lost their spark. 

 

CHVRCHES have made their return with Screen Violence, a darker and more defiant offering from a group known for their joyous festival-favourite bops. It is not surprising CHVRCHES have gone for a bleaker tone on this album. Frontwoman Lauren Mayberry wrote for the Guardian in 2013 of the frustration of constant objectification and sexually aggressive abuse she received online. More recently, the group spoke out against Marshmello working with Chris Brown after their own collaboration with the EDM producer, which resulted in rape and death threats to the group, and a need for increased security.  

 

Mayberry explores the patriarchal contradictions imposed on women in the second track ‘He Said She Said’, such as “Look good but don’t be obsessed”. It is refreshing to hear Mayberry’s frustration in the song, as she admits in the chorus “I feel like I’m losing my mind”. Mayberry spoke of the power of this in a track-by-track guide of the album for NME, especially as “a lot of music isn’t written for women, it’s not written by women”. It feels like the group have reached a point where they can finally write their frustrations into their music, dispelling this façade of an energetic high on life persona that Mayberry has previously come across as on stage and in some of her songs.  

 

In ‘Good Girls’ and ‘Final Girl’,  Mayberry continues to delve into the final girl horror film trope, where the obedient and well-liked girl is the one who survives the film, reflecting how women are told to edit themselves and abide by the rules in order to fit in. We see parallels with Mayberry’s decision to be “outspoken”, often the more dangerous choice but one she is resolute in: “They tell me I’m hellbent on revenge/ I cut my teeth on weaker men/ I won’t apologize again”.  

The tracks that are the most successful are the ones where Mayberry is her most direct

The honesty of this album is its strongest feature. There is vulnerability in it, and yet simultaneously Mayberry sounds at her most formidable. Her singing sounds especially impassioned on track ‘How Not To Drown’, where she sings with Robert Smith from The Cure, about trying to fight through something that feels impossible to see a way out of. The tracks that are the most successful are the ones where Mayberry is her most direct

 

Whilst the message and theme of this album are their most impactful yet, the actual melodies and songs themselves are not their strongest. Their maximalist synth-pop sound is CHVRCHES’ distinguishing feature, and so for some of the album to not sound as intricate or layered on tracks such as ‘Lullabies’, ‘Nightmares’ or ‘Violent Delights’ is disappointing. 

 

In addition, the album becomes somewhat repetitive: the first two songs utilise the CHVRCHES favourite of repeating a single phrase over an elevated chorus. Later, the chorus of ‘California’ and ‘Final Girl’ sound very similar. It is a real shame considering the interesting lyrical content of the album. The songs on the second half of the album themselves don’t feel very impactful, which is unlike the unique sound CHVRCHES had created in their earlier work. Final song ‘Better If You Don’t’ is a welcome change in pace from the tedious sound of the last tracks, a less synth-heavy track in which, unusually for CHVRCHES, the guitar takes precedence.  

 

This is an almost return to form for CHVRCHES. It delights in its honesty and its bleaker themes are a refreshing change, but CHVRCHES have not reached the heights of their first two albums. It’s just frustrating knowing what CHVRCHES are capable of. Their change in tone on this album is commendable, but we should expect more from a band that has shown that they can be exciting and pioneering with their synth-pop sound. CHVRCHES’ have proven their potential before, but they still need to prove they have their spark after a very weak album, and unfortunately, this wasn’t quite it.

 

 

 

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