When Chvrches (pronounced "churches") emerged in 2013, I initially thought they were yet another pretentious hipster band with a daft name. This was exactly the kind of thing that would cause the late, great journalist George Byrne to have a conniption.
As it happens, Chvrches ended up being a rather interesting synth pop band from Glasgow, a city better known for its more traditional indie guitar bands. Iain Cook and Martin Doherty both served stints as members of the moderately successful Aerogramme and The Twilight Sad, but after joining forces with singer Lauren Mayberry, they became a formidable electronic trio whose profile eclipsed both these bands, and most of their peers.
They also spawned a plethora of terrible clones that will be blaring over the speakers of your nearest H&M outlet right now.
The headline story about their third album is both David Stewart from Eurythmics and Matt Berninger from The National are both on board. Berninger, who fronts one of the most phenomenally successful alternative acts of recent years at the Irish box office, pops up to offer his dulcet tones on the single, My Enemy. Stewart worked alongside blue chip producer Greg Kurstin on production, who has recorded heavyweights such as Adele, Beck and Kendrick Lamar.
Love is Dead is a catchy and immediate album that should easily consolidate their global fanbase. Mayberry is a good front woman, who has consistently spoken up on social justice issues, LBGTQ+ rights and online bullying. Prior to her career as a pop singer, she dabbled in law and journalism, and it shows in her articulate passion.
However, her voice is unnecessarily processed throughout Love is Dead. Even the aforementioned Berninger is forced through the shiny pop blender. It doesn't exactly work, making it an intriguing collaboration, but far from riveting.
At its best, Love is Dead has an odd golden pop nugget like Get Out, the soaring torch ballad Miracle, and the impressive Forever, which all prove how good they can be. At its worst, Love is Dead is plodding, formulaic and anodyne, and overstays its welcome over a weighty 50 minutes.
Sylvan Esso from North Carolina do this sort of thing a bit better, but with a fraction of the crossover success.
Chvrches are at their most interesting when they probe various personal and political turmoils underneath their sugary synth melodies. "They're leaving bodies in stairwells and washing up on the shores," Mayberry sings on Graves, presumably about the refugee crisis.
Neither is the album title about the end of a relationship, as Mayberry has said an underlining theme is the universal “death of empathy”. The music doesn’t match these noble ambitions. In fact, it makes all the polished shininess wear even thinner. Chvrches once prompted one bemused live reviewer to memorably conclude that they were “vanilla EBM” (electronic body music) and “goth for people who are afraid of the dark.”
Love is Dead falls flat over the guts of an hour with its over-reliance on uniform synth sounds and over-processed vocals. They have some good ideas, plus some okay lyrics and arrangements, so it's a pity Chvrches don't let more light and shade into their sound and let it breathe more organically.
The Glaswegian trio have smartly cherrypicked influences and sounds from early Stock, Aiken and Waterman era Kylie Minogue to Depeche Mode, but without ever forging their own singular identity. This is pleasant but boring bubblegum pop for the masses.
Mayberry is one of the more interesting figures in modern pop, so here’s hoping one day they’ll have a bit more substance and bite.