The Violence of CHVRCHES
I have to admit that CHVRCHES is a bit of a guilty pleasure. There is nothing that CHVRCHES does that seems special. It’s typically lightweight, often danceable pop. And yet, it’s compelling. Their music is, at times, sweet, but often urgent and overly emotional. Despite the genre and pretentious name, they don’t bore me like a lot of pop music. That might be because they are not built around the same ole, same ole R&B hooks. CHVRCHES is, somehow, infectious like Avril Lavigne or Madonna. It shouldn’t be as good as it is, yet it is.
The new album, Screen Violence, carries the CHVRCHES formula forward. It’s full of predictable hooks and pop themes – young people trying to connect, feelings, all that – but doesn’t feel dull or repetitive. It’s the quality not the originally of the riffs, beats, and lyrics that make this a good late summer album. The album starts with a song that has probably the most 2020’s title imaginable – “Asking for a Friend”. Clearly, it’s a song about someone who is trying to connect with a potential lover by just “asking for a friend”. It’s good danceable pop and kind of gentle sounding. I can imagine legions of teenagers getting into this song while writing “I love you Jason!” on their Earth Science binders.
Beyond the obvious appeal for teens, this album follows three distinct formulas. The first are hyper emotional songs, , that begin with a stripped down vocal and simple beat that rises until it becomes louder, fuller, and more dramatic part before dropping off again. Rinse repeat. These are the Avril Lavigne type songs. Examples of this type are “He Said, She Said” and “Nightmares”.
The second formula are songs in a minor key that meant to sound urgent and dramatic. These can be described as lightweight Evanescence but with Lauren Mayberry’s baby doll vocals. “How Not To Drown” with The Cure singer Robert Smith, “Violent Delights”, and “Final Girl” are songs in this vein. The last of these adds some interesting 80s style Goth synths which make it almost industrial. Finally, there are the pure dance pop songs such as “Good Girls”, “Lullabies”, and “California”. “California” even includes a 90s like chorus that sound remarkably like Third Eye Blind’s “What’s it gonna be…”.
There are some occasional but serious flaws on Screen Violence. The use of a vocoder is completely unnecessary on “He Said, She Said” (when is it necessary?) which is not at all about rape, like you may think. They put a lot of promotion into the song with Robert Smith but it’s not all that interesting. It is a waste of his celebrity and goth cred. His appearance on “Final Girl” would have made much more sense. The formulas are, well, formulaic. Their use tends to blur songs together, inhibiting anything unique about them. There are no standout singles on this album either. None of the songs seems particularly groundbreaking.
And yet, it’s a very good album. It’s not California Soil by London Grammar or St. Vincent’s Daddy’s Home but it is a thoroughly enjoyable album even if you are not an angsty thirteen-year-old. This is the magic of CHVRCHES. They can take concepts that should be utterly “meh” and make it engaging. Such is Screen Violence. The whole far outweighs the sum of the parts or any individual component. Perhaps it’s superior production. Maybe, or it’s just what CHVRCHES does well – craft pop songs that would otherwise suck in the hands of anyone else. Once again, the magic works for Screen Violence.