Music

On “Love Is Dead,” Chvrches Lean Into Their Moment in the Pop Spotlight

‘The idea that pop can’t be artful, or can’t be meaningful in any way, is snobbery. Get yourself a band that can do both.’

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Chvrches singer Lauren Mayberry likens famed producer Greg Kurstin’s basement studio in Los Angeles to a bunker. A quiet, underground shelter, the space proved an ideal sanctuary for recording Love Is Dead, the band’s third album, which dropped last week. Mayberry and bandmates Martin Doherty and Iain Cook had instant chemistry with Kurstin, known for his work with Adele, Sia, and Beck. “We just went into a little hole,” says Mayberry. What they emerged with is the only synthpop album you need to hear this summer. 

“Going down into that basement in Los Angeles all day and making a record, and then coming outside every day and being hit with this unbelievably intense sunshine — that’s basically our band,” says Doherty. “There’s both sides of what we do. And that’s what we’re trying to do on this record, bring both of those things into focus.”

Ever since the band burst out of the Scottish gloom early in the decade, Chvrches have bridged the world of indie and mainstream music, hiding deeply introspective lyrics within confoundingly catchy pop songs and dance-floor anthems. All three members of the trio are from small towns outside of Glasgow, and they came together in September 2011, when Cook and Doherty asked Mayberry to sing on some demos. With a sound honed from Cook’s and Doherty’s years kicking around the local music scene, and lyrics sharpened by Mayberry’s time working as a freelance writer, Chvrches seemed to emerge as a fully formed pop juggernaut.

The band attracted near-instant buzz when it posted early tracks “The Mother We Share” and “Lies” online; an EP emerged in November 2012. After signing with Glassnote Records the following year, the band embarked on a slew of North American tour dates, including an appearance at SXSW and a performance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Their debut studio album, The Bones of What You Believe, was released in 2013, with Every Open Eye following in 2015.

While their music has enough pop sensibility to fit comfortably on the radio, Chvrches don’t consider themselves pop stars. “A band like the Cure can have songs played on the radio,” says Mayberry of the path the group  is on, “and they’re technically pop music and catchy as fuck, but they were still introspective and weird.” The band has yet to see a single break into the Top 10, yet each year it climbs closer to headline slots at festivals like Coachella, Austin City Limits, and Outside Lands. This weekend they’re back in New York at the Governors Ball, on June 3. 

Love Is Dead, their first record with an outside producer and their first recorded in the U.S., arrives at an auspicious time for Chvrches. Mayberry has long spoken out about misogyny in the music industry — notably in an op-ed that appeared in the Guardian in 2013. And while the album isn’t expressly political, Chvrches encourage fans to listen beyond the lyrics about personal relationships and growing older, and consider the content at large. “I don’t want people to be picking apart this and analyzing that, based on what they know about me as a person,” says Mayberry. “I want them to think about what it means to them.” 

In describing what the album sounds like to her, Mayberry explains, “It kind of just sounds like trying to figure things out, you know? It’s not necessarily making a huge depressing statement. It’s more about trying to figure out, like, once you feel a certain way about things or once you know too much or finally know enough, how can you proceed in a way that’s positive, and where you find the hope in those kinds of situations.”

Choruses on Love Is Dead sound bigger and bolder than anything we’ve heard from the band before, yet lyrically this album explores the undercurrent of melancholy and political anxiety that’s always been a part of Chrvches’ work. Early singles “Gun” and “Bury It” reflect their tendency to play with violent imagery, masked in shiny synths. There’s an inherent darkness to their music. In the bright-sounding “Graves,” off their new album, Mayberry sings of the current refugee crisis (“Do you really believe that you can never be sure/They’re leaving bodies in stairwells/And washing up on the shore”), the idea of ignorance being bliss (“If I only see what I can see I know it isn’t there”), and the inaction of our political leadership (“Looking away, you’re looking away/from all that we’ve done”).

“You can have a song like ‘Miracle’ on the record, or ‘Get Out,’ which is a fucking sunny pop song that repeats the same two words over again in the chorus, because that’s pop music,” Doherty says. “But at the same time, I want to put a song like ‘God’s Plan’ on that album, that’s about depression and the futility of being fucking alive. That song is just as valid in this band and I think at the core of everything we’ve done up until this point.”

Mayberry is in the rare position of having written music and art criticism in the past, prior to putting her band’s work out into the world to face judgment. Love Is Dead has received both exceedingly positive and decidedly lukewarm reviews, and while Mayberry tries not to read them, she has no qualms about sharing her thoughts on the matter. “All I ever want is to feel something and be made to feel something. Beyond that, I don’t know if I am right or wrong or if someone else is the other. But I’d rather be here trying to be a part of it and engaging than sitting on the side, being negative and trying to analyse human behaviour without actually taking part in it or doing anything,” she wrote in a recent post on Instagram. “This rhetoric is kind of bullshit. Not because it’s a ‘bad’ review, but beyond that. If you don’t like the music, fine. If you don’t like me, fine/I feel you 99% of the time. But please don’t make this music and this record a symbol or scapegoat for something else.”

Mayberry’s sense of frustration is apparent from the album’s title, which reflects the idea that we exist in a time void of empathy — whether for victims of human rights abuses or those we interact with on a day-to-day basis. “We’re fucked, the world is fucked,” says Cook. “But there’s an ellipsis at the end. It’s Love Is Dead… Like, how did we get to this point? And how do we move on from this point?” 

Maybe their reckoning, is that we too need to wake the fuck up. Or finally, that the answer isn’t in the knitty gritty of the lyrics at all — instead of picking them apart, we must arrive at it on our own.

Perhaps Chvrches want to deliver us from evil, shining their light into the world’s darkest corners, just as their music penetrated and brightened the “bunker” that is Kurstin’s underground studio. “I feel like the idea that pop can’t be artful, or can’t be meaningful in any way, is snobbery, I suppose,” Mayberry explains. “So, I’m just trying to do both. Get yourself a band that can do both.”

Chvrches play Governors Ball on Sunday, June 3.

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