The Volatility of a Nuclear Reactor
The cover art for all of the official releases from the Glasgow synth pop group CHVRCHES are similar to that of warning signs seen plastered around nuclear reactors. The ones that scream “RADIOACTIVE MATERIAL” to remind you of the world-ending power that the energy efficient machines contain and maintain, barely. The stylized name of the group on its debut album, The Bones of What You Believe, leaps off the cover as an all-caps instruction to be wary of what lies inside. Yet, just beneath the group’s name lies the album title in an almost minuscule font size which reads as a footnote about the volatile materials contained within.
The Bones of What You Believe is an album that greets you with a swelling synth that builds around the vulnerable vocals of Lauren Mayberry, the group’s lead vocalist, on the track “The Mother We Share.” It’s the album at one of its most tender and disarming moments. It’s a moment that has you taking off the HAZMAT suit seconds after you placed it on. But this is only temporary, as the album gets louder and increasingly sociopathic.
Mayberry is great at changing the tone of her voice from sickly sweet coo to unsuspecting menace around Iain Cook and Martin Doherty’s synth arrangements, which set the environment for Mayberry’s lyrics to either bite or reveal scars. This versatility is first highlighted as the opening track transitions into “We Sink,” where the refrain “I’ll be a thorn in your side, ’till you die” becomes hauntingly eerie. It’s structure as a pop song allows for it to be accessible on the surface, but it can also feel as if you need to file a restraining order.
Multiple tracks on TBOWYB contain hooks which, when repeated, feel as if Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction had written them. On “Gun,” Mayberry compares herself to weaponry by yelping, “I’ll be a gun and it’s you I’ll come for” around building synthesizers that feel as if her bullets are within in an inch of your fleeting body.
The confidence that Mayberry exudes on this album is best exemplified on “Lies.” Set to pounding drums that sound as if they’ve been covered in dust, the song builds to the chorus where Mayberry exclaims, “I can sell you lies.” It’s affecting especially when she adds, “I can feed your dirty mind”. It’s reminiscent of the nature of humans discussed on the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams.” Everybody wants something, people want to be used while maintaining some sense of control. It’s a song that affirms Mayberry’s control over the instability that is ensuing.
Her dominance is presented through the consistent rising and falling provided by the instrumentation Cook and Doherty. Each song feels like an anthem in their own right with openings of bare space and climaxes of with a huge, electronic wall of sound. The electro fuzz that permeates the album serves as a sort of vinyl crackle that feels as if CHVRCHES is performing in a Dust Bowl tornado and is a huge layer added onto the dense loops, kicks, and hits.
Even though, structurally, this is considered a pop record, the subject matter seems too somber or too ruthless for any fun to be had. That’s where “Lungs” comes in. It feels like a synth pop take on the current state of more visible artists like Katy Perry. It’s bouncy, light and enhanced by vocals that can leave you feeling as if you have a dozen lollipops stuck to a wool sweater. It seems very out of place among a ride that is endlessly twisting and turning through the nature of different relationships.
Overall, it’s a solid debut effort from a group that shows much promise as they continue to tour and build their fan base in America. It’s a record that establishes a sound that can, at times, be as emotionally raw as it is cold and calculated. The evocative image on the front cover reveals that, yes, this is an album whose subject matter is as unstable as the atom bomb art that it suggests.