The Bones of What You Believe
Styles: post-ironic pop
Others: Robyn, The Knife, Arcade Fire
A couple months back, a friend sent me a Facebook message in response to my review of Palm / | \ Highway Chase’s Escape From New York. It was a bleak review, and it focused mainly on how contemporary communication has in many ways become a shallow, transitory stream of ironic self-reference. Challenging my point, my friend included in her post a link to an article by Johnathon D. Fitzgerald published last year in The Atlantic, entitled “Sincerity, Not Irony, Is Our Age’s Ethos.” As the title so eloquently suggests, Fitzgerald’s thesis is that the ironic detachment of “hipster” culture, instead of being the defining ethos of a generation, is only a fleeting aberration, a momentary affect adopted by frustrated posturing youths. Kids will be kids, am I right? Indeed, Fitzgerald argues that we are currently in an era defined not by irony, but by an overarching cultural trend towards sincerity — an era Fitzgerald and other cultural critics have dubbed the New Sincerity.
Now, at first I took exception to Fitzgerald’s essay. I rolled my eyes at his optimism. And indeed, I still find much of his argument ill-posed. After all, can you really dismiss hipsterdom as a “sub-sub-sub-sub-culture” when your standard for the cultural ubiquity of sincerity is Judd Apatow, Arcade Fire, and David Foster Wallace? I mean, if you’re looking for sincerity in popular culture, shouldn’t you be considering the work of the truly populist artists? You know, the ones with international airplay and multi-million Twitter followers. Like, I don’t know, Miley Cyrus for example. You know, the one from the VMAs. Is this the face of New Sincerity?
And then along comes an album like The Bones of What You Believe. The much-hyped debut album from Scottish synthpop team Chvrches, The Bones of What You Believe seemed poised to perfectly exemplify my argument against Fitzgerald. At first glance, Chvrches appear to be pedaling precisely the sort of irony-saturated indie pop that seems to gain so much traction among the kids these days. The anachronistically-spelled band name and funereal (indeed, almost nihilistic) album title seemed to say it all.
But appearances are often deceiving. And make no mistake about it: The Bones of What You Believe is one of the most unabashedly sincere works of indie pop I’ve come across in a very long time. And I’m not talking about the sort of Wes Anderson-esque sincerity Fitzgerald cited so heavily in his original essay — which is to say the sort of tongue-in-cheek heart-on-your-flannel-sleeve sincerity that manifests itself as a mere gesture towards the real thing. On the contrary. Chvrches aren’t just making a gesture in refute of irony; they’re taking a sledgehammer to it. Because ironic detachment isn’t just a teenage fad that can be shrugged off and ignored. It’s real. And Chvrches are terrified of it.
This is an album about pain — the pain of isolation, the pain of detachment, the pain of feeling yourself drift steadily away from it all. It’s the sound of a band rending their chests open, wailing in agony, pleading for connection. “I’m in misery,” they implore on the opening track, “The way is long, but you can make it easy on me.” And then a track later, on the all too aptly titled “We Sink,” this supplication becomes an imperative: “I’ll be a thorn in your side till you die/ I’ll be a thorn in your side for always.” It’s a touching line, made all the more so by its startling immediacy. It’s a call to arms. A rallying cry for the dance floor.
Indeed, part of Chvrches’ startling resonance lies in their choice of context. This isn’t sincerity in the absence of irony, as Fitzgerald would have it. It’s sincerity in spite of irony, which is to say sincerity within irony. Indeed, there is something intrinsically ironic about the idea of encoding profound sincerity within the fabric of danceable synthpop. This isn’t so much irony in the Urban Outfitters sense as it is irony in the almost century-old New Critical sense: a structural device reliant on an intentional incongruity between form and content. The Bones of What You Believe doesn’t just feel sincere by the standards of pop music; it feels sincere precisely because it is pop music. It’s the reason why “Heartbeats” will always be more moving coming from The Knife than from José González. It’s why Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” might very well be the most heart-wrenching song of the decade. Chvrches are making a statement here. It’s certainly not a new statement, but the difference is now we’re actually listening to it. Because it’s in the last place we’d expect to find it.
In short, Chvrches achieve sincerity not by simply rising above detachment, but by struggling with it on very real terms. And in doing so, they offer a sobering acknowledgment of just how far we’ve drifted away from each other. A reminder of the thousands of miles of ethernet cable that separate us from the person three feet away. But Chvrches are tired of fucking around. “I’ll come clean,” they resolve on the stunningly moving “Recover,” “Everywhere, everyone knows it’s me.” The time for hiding is over. No more Facebook intimacy. No more Snapchat flirtation. Now’s the moment when we say what we really feel. Before we forget how to.
And so I’ve come to realize I was reading the title all wrong. This isn’t a eulogy. This isn’t a posthumous ode to the skeletal remains of dead ideals and rotting beliefs. Because the bones in the title are our own. They’re the subterranean architecture that holds us together. They’re the dormant bits of stone that will be with us until the day we die. And even if we’re drifting apart — from each other, from ourselves — maybe we can still get back in touch with the bones of what we believe.
01. The Mother We Share
02. We Sink
06. Under the Tide
08. Night Sky
11. By the Throat
12. You Caught the Light