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

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. 

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“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.”

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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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DARK DESIRES

The synth-toting Brooklyn quartet Small Black sculpt sounds that owe equal debt to the melancholic melodies of darker new-wave groups (New Order, the Cure) and to the hazy burnout indifference of ’60s psychedelic bands. The group’s relaxed, gone-daddy-gone vibe originated in 2008 when one of its members recorded some songs above his uncle’s Long Island surf house, which explains its “cool brah” vocal style and pleasantly crisp keyboard noodling. And though critics have lumped Small Black in with the rest of chillwave’s blurry lo-fi synth softness (and they did in fact release a split with Washed Out), they have put out albums like 2010’s New Chain that seem more genuinely pop-focused (and memorable) than that genre’s cassette-dubbed clones. They have a new record due in May, forlornly titled Limits of Desire, so maybe tonight they’ll give concertgoers a glimpse at the acid trip to come. With fellow fuzzy-sounding friends Heavenly Beat and Imperial Topaz, plus a DJ set by Beach Fossils.

Fri., March 8, 8 p.m., 2013

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BLACK CELEBRATION

Depeche Mode, the Cure, and the Smiths—if you ever loved one, chances are you loved all three. Which is why the Depeche Mode Fanclub New York is putting on the Golden Triangle Fest, the ultimate tribute to this trio of darkness. Tonight, Smiths tribute band the Sons & Heirs and DM tribute band Violator play all the best tunes to mope to. To complete the triangle, DJ Shred, DJ Shunt, and DJ Ash provide hits from the Cure. Judging by photos of happy revelers at the club’s recent party cruise, even the most depressive souls might go home smiling.

Sat., Aug. 25, 11 p.m., 2012

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BIG PIMPIN’

After hosting the release party for El-P’s Cure 4 Cancer, Shortcuts—the not-quite monthly True Panther Sounds boss Dean Bein and rappers Heems and Despot throw in the Santos basement—is back, bringing budding D.C. Rapper Fat Trel into the city for his biggest New York show to date. Still sleeping on Washington hip-hop? Start with Trel’s Lex Luger–produced banger “Respect With the Teck,” then download his recent Nightmare on E Street mixtape and fill in the details. Keeping with the theme, Houston’s always charming—and surprisingly svelte—Fat Tony opens, celebrating his new deal with upstart indie label Young Ones.

Thu., June 14, 10 p.m., 2012

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‘Shortcuts’ w/ El-P+Despot

One of the original architects behind the noisy, confrontational hip-hop records espoused by the likes of Odd Future, Company Flow rapper and producer El-P also deserves credit for putting on some of the most engaging hip-hop concerts. Maybe it’s his enthusiasm, maybe it’s the sonic bass booms that rattle him across the stage, or maybe it’s just the way he’s always in motion, but El-P has a certain intangible quality that makes him a born MC. Tonight, he’s celebrating the release of his third proper, uh, LP, Cancer for Cure, which boasts guest spots by members of Interpol and Islands, as well as tonight’s opener, rapper Despot.

Mon., May 21, 8 p.m., 2012

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Charli XCX’s Timeless Pain

Later this week, the British singer Charli XCX—a 19-year-old Londoner (born Charlotte Aitchinson) with a goth-pop appeal that fuses the pouty personae of Garbage lead singer Shirley Manson, postpunk pioneer Siouxsie Sioux, and the Cure’s Robert Smith—will make her Stateside debut with a pair of shows in New York. Charli’s 2011 single “Stay Away,” a plush, brooding lament directed toward a lover who kept her hanging just long enough to get her hooked, was the year’s most staggering introductory statement, a lovelorn bit of sulking synthpop that, despite the KEEP OUT signs plastered all over it from its title on down, reels the listener in almost reflexively.

Her follow-up singles have been similarly soaked in retro tropes, sprinkled with just enough flourishes of the present day—particularly maxed-out sonics that make speakers crackle like those on a particularly overtaxed laptop—to jar the brain into realizing that the song in question was in fact crafted during the 21st century. They’ve also straddled the line between being danceable and being utterly sullen; “Nuclear Seasons,” which she self-released last fall, recalls bygone radio hits by the likes of Talk Talk and Johnny Hates Jazz and compares a breakup’s aftermath to that of the titular bomb, while the peppy “I’ll Never Know” was recorded as an accompaniment for a runway show, its aggressively sunny glockenspiels shielding—or at least temporarily hiding—the longing of lyrics like “If I see you alone on the pavement/Will my heart freeze/Will the sun melt down my bones?”

Escaping personal heartache through the dancefloor isn’t all that new of a trick, though it’s one that can be treacherous to navigate—pain can tip over into suffocating melodrama if not handled with the right finesse, or at least a danceable enough beat to gloss over some of the more LiveJournal-ready lines. Charli’s first few singles have handled this dilemma in a way that bodes well for her future releases. (She’s set to release an EP through the Los Angeles label IAMSOUND in May.) This past Saturday night at the Lehman Center in the Bronx, a gaggle of artists operating in a similarly lovelorn idiom since the 1980s gave an indication that, when 2037 or so rolls around, the sadness she’s putting forth now might sound just as heartbreakingly satisfying.

Saturday night’s show paid homage to the electropop subgenre known as freestyle, which was birthed in New York City’s Latino enclaves by producers like the Latin Rascals and Jellybean Benitez. They’d pick apart early electro tracks such as “Planet Rock” and “Trans-Europe Express,” speed up the samples, and add their own flourishes, like piano riffs borrowed from salsa and polyrhythms. Over the years, the genre was refined into an easily recognizable one; signifiers included emotion-filled vocals, breakdowns that consisted mostly of synthesized drumbeats, and the “treble” setting being turned all the way up.

The genre’s two hubs were New York and Miami, and though the basic frameworks were the same, the cities had a few stylistic differences. “New York Freestyle, even in its most polished forms, retained a raw edge and underground sound, using minor chords that made the tracks darker and more moody,” producer Joey Gardner wrote in the liner notes to the 10-disc compilation Freestyle’s Greatest Beats. “The lyrics also tended to be about unrequited love or other more somber themes.”

The show, dubbed Forever Freestyle 6, had a party atmosphere and a quick pace; the stage setup was minimal, with artists like Nayobe, Sa-Fire, Noel, and Stevie B performing in front of a DJ and the occasional dancer or three. The crowd danced and held up camera phones, and the between-sets DJ caused hoots and clapping when he dropped similarly bygone hits like “Poison” and “Just a Friend” into the mix. But those somber themes lurked among the mirth, and the songs that walked the same lonely path as Charli XCX’s first few singles, in which professions of sadness were remixed into dancefloor gold, garnered the biggest pop from the crowd. Particularly Sa-Fire’s “Boy I’ve Been Told,” in which the singer is psyching herself up to cut things off with a crummy boyfriend, and the Bronx-born singer Noel’s 1987 track “Silent Morning,” about a lover who has taken leave. (He spat out an ad-libbed “bullshit” after repeating one line about men being expected to not cry.)

The final act of the night was the Miami-based singer Stevie B, whose plainspoken ballad “Because I Love You (The Postman Song)” topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1990. His catalog is spangled with enough crowd-pleasers to allow him to leave the track off his brief headlining set. (Although he’s touted as being the man responsible for the song at his next freestyle-extravaganza appearance, set to take place in Red Bank on March 17.) The hit the people wanted was instead the 1988 single “Spring Love,” a lament about a onetime paramour who left an impression despite only being around for a couple of months. They shouted for it as he prepared to leave the stage (of course, he was going to come back), and, while wearing a T-shirt bearing his own image, he tore through it, leading the crowd in singing the chorus. The words being uttered in unison were drenched in sadness—”But something changed, the season came to an end/I had to leave you, and that’s where my heartache began”—but that didn’t lessen the wattage of the smiles coming from both the crowd and the stage.

Both the freestyle laments and Charli XCX’s tracks are directed toward a “you” that’s floating in space; few details about those responsible for the heartbreak are filled out by the lyrics, which instead focus on the pain radiating from within and its sources. It might be one of the most crucial elements in making singles like “Spring Love” and “Stay Away” more immediate, even while they’re soaked in retro tropes; that relentless looking outward allows the listener—or, in probably a lot of cases, the person singing along—to share in the catharsis, making the space between artist and audience charged with the sort of commonality that defies ideas of timeliness.

Charli XCX plays the Knitting Factory on Saturday and Santos Party House on Monday.

mjohnston@villagevoice.com

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Chevelle

Taking the gothic pop sensibility of the Cure and adding the dark magnetism of Tool (but without the later band’s cerebral experimentalism), Chevelle has been balancing alt-metal extremes for over a decade. The band first made their mark with anguish anthem “The Red” and have since released four albums that follow the formula combining crunchy guitar, throbbing bass, and swoony vocals for palette-cleansing hard-but-not-too-hard-rock.

Wed., Feb. 29, 7 p.m., 2012

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The Cure

Tonight, in a rare moment of nostalgia, His Royal Lowness—the eternally made-up and melancholy Robert Smith—will be leading his bandmates in the Cure through their first three albums. Over the course of four 40-minute sets, they’ll play the 1979 post-punk masterpiece, Three Imaginary Boys, 1980’s forlorn Seventeen Seconds, and the moody 1981 LP Faith, as well as a set of “encores of the period” (read: “Boys Don’t Cry”). In addition to Smith’s foil, bassist Simon Gallup, the band’s lineup will include Disintegration-era keyboardist Roger O’Donnell, original drummer Lol Tollhurst, and long-running drummer Jason Cooper. Black fingernail polish optional.

Fri., Nov. 25, 8 p.m.; Sat., Nov. 26, 8 p.m.; Sun., Nov. 27, 8 p.m., 2011

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Heaven Knows Valentine’s Day Makes Us Miserable Now

There’s no avoiding the Day of Love. We can either feel miserable at home, all alone, or sulk, drink and dance with other sad folks. We say Feeling Gloomy’s Heaven Knows Valentine’s Day Makes Us Miserable Now is the way to go. They tell us to “Come on down and dance to all those anti-love belters brought to you by the likes of Pulp, The Cure, Suede,Echo & The Bunnymen, The Specials, Moz, The Smiths and heaps more.” We’re feeling better already.

Sat., Feb. 5, 11 p.m., 2011

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Kayo Dot

After three mind-bending, jazz-fusion, art-metal, something-or-other LPs, New York’s moodily demented Kayo Dot have evolved into a most curious creature: the metal band with no guitars! But thankfully, they are no less haunting than any skin-ripping chug machine; the band creates spectral, otherworldly vibes through the textures of bands like the Cure and Faith and the Muse. Tonight they premiere their new composition(!), “Stained Glass.” Bring a coat, ’cause it’s gonna get chilly. With Cleric and Bad Girlfriend.

Tue., Aug. 24, 7:30 p.m., 2010