The trio behind CHVRCHES clearly don’t believe in the sophomore slump. After the success of its 2013 debut, “The Bones of What You Believe,” the Scottish indie-electronica band has doubled the pop power with its follow-up album, “Every Open Eye.”
Its tracks are precise without feeling overprocessed. The instrumental climaxes are well-timed, no beat is out of place, and the lyrics pack an emotional punch even with their brevity — though frontwoman Lauren Mayberry can probably thank her master’s degree in journalism for that.
Part of the group’s unique appeal is its expert manipulation of light and dark. In a different setting, Mayberry’s sprightly vocals could turn tracks to sickly sweet mush; alongside the boys of the band (one of whom is a touring alum of the gloom-heavy, post-punk indie band The Twilight Sad), she uses her feminine voice as a contrast to the heavy themes of her lyrics and the driving force of some of the grungier synth riffs.
With all of that in its musical arsenal, CHVRCHES comes out swinging right off the bat, slugging away at the top of the album with its two big singles: “Never Ending Circles” and “Leave a Trace.” Both have gotten plenty of radio play, and for good reason — they’re hopelessly catchy, full of dynamic changes, and downright empowering.
Still, this top-heavy start was a risky move — how could the album possibly sustain that kind of intensity?
“Keep You on My Side” is a good start. The beat remains strong, and the chorus has a sledgehammer force that hits after a misleadingly light prechorus.
The sunny synths, rolling drums, and uplifting lyrics of “Make Them Gold” make this sweeping track another highlight.
Five songs in, “Clearest Blue” is a magnificent spike of adrenaline. It starts off simple and builds on itself, snowballing as the vocals build, name-dropping the album title on the way to the musical climax: a bridge so beat-driven and danceable that it made people lose their minds during the band’s set at the Landmark Music Festival last weekend.
For “High Enough to Carry You Over,” Mayberry hands the mic off to Martin Doherty, reminding us that CHVRCHES is a team effort. It’s a definite comedown after the sprinting synth heights of “Clearest Blue,” but you can’t blame the band for needing to catch its breath a little.
The album tries to regain momentum with the highly danceable “Empty Threat,” but the sonic heights and dynamic changes just aren’t as intense as they are in the powerhouse leading tracks.
“Down Side of Me” brings the tempo back down again, this time for the most contemplative interlude on the album. Though the lyrics are sparse, their emotional power is undeniable. As the synth moves in subtle but powerful swells through the bridge, Mayberry repeats, “If I keep you away from the down side of me / You can keep me a trick of the light that you see.” It’s impossible not to feel the vulnerability there, the fear that someone will discover your dark side and realize you’re not what they thought.
“Playing Dead” and “Bury It” risk blending into one another — even the titles make them relatively interchangeable. The major differentiator: “Playing Dead” plays it safer and doesn’t do much building, while “Bury It” has a compelling prechorus that soars into what is almost a battle cry: “Bury it! Bury it! Bury it and rise above!”
After this last musical climax, “Afterglow” is the necessary calm after the storm, an outro that, though unremarkable on its own, gives you time to center yourself and revisit the themes of the album: highs and lows, self-realization, leaving a trace.
The final words sum up just how much effort and emotion went into making the album: “I’ve given up all I can / I’ve given up all I can.”
You can’t help but feel that you, too, are a little emotionally exhausted after listening to this album. Though definitely most intense at the album’s outset, the musical and lyrical climaxes keep coming track after track. Let’s hope that CHVRCHES keeps up the intensity with a third album — because from what it’s shown us so far, it has a lot to give.
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