Chvrches Love is Dead

[Glassnote; 2018]

Styles: improper pop, body language, empathy
Others: Kylie Minogue, Scritti Politti, Mark Fisher

“A code which no one can explain but everyone understands.”

Sound has no narrative. It doesn’t swell and end like love affair or plot like sentence. It doesn’t have a history like our bones or nodes. Its absence isn’t a death. Silence instead, is reaction, a part of the processing of the sound that came before, to the ears that heard a sound. There’s no meaning to that kind of continuum, just what we hear is what we hear. Even when intentional, whether organized into melody or scrambled into noise, sound remains a universal, unknowable and unassailable. Or: “Let the rhythm pull you in — This will touch it/ You know what I’m sayin’ and I haven’t said a thing.” (Kylie Minogue, “Slow”)

Still, we wrestle it. We treat it like a lover. What did you say? What did you mean when you said it?

Chvrches made a record called Love is Dead. How love? When dead? What Chvrches?

It seems it’s all it means. Seems (descriptive) and means (prescriptive) are methods by which ears and eyes ascribe and infuse art with explanation. We take the sounds and images and render the sensation sensed, the ineffable as effigy. And we do it with words, equal parts extrapolation and reduction and voila: narrative.

Is it history? In 2013, a Scottish synthpop band made an EP called Recover. A few months later, they released a full-length, The Bones of What You Believe. Both pieces fused the break free of dance-floor with the exaltation of arena anthem. Songs like “The Mother We Share,” “Recover,” and “Night Sky” were sticky: a body felt good moving to these sounds because a body recognized that the songs had room for it to rock with them. Chvrches flecked their songs with a belief in songs themselves, in bodies moving and the power of voice. That sincerity, however broad, felt like a viable antidote to the chilled irony of indie craftpop circa 2013. Chvrches saw how irony positioned itself above and away from beating hearts and so struck out in absorbing, engaging tones. It was “sincerity in spite of irony, which is to say sincerity within irony,” TMT’s Gabriel Samach wrote. It resonated. The band would play in the same earnest hues on 2015’s Every Open Eye in sharper resolution and higher contrasts. “Never Ending Circles,” all arms-aloft and afterglow, was the best Chvrches ever re-sounded. And then, as now, Love is Dead, the same Scottish synthpop band alive in 2018, the third album, the first with outside producers and Matt Berninger cameos.

Lots of ears got their thoughts in by the deadline. And the narrative felt pretty set, even from the early singles: Love is Dead is a little flimsy. Pitched as a genuine pop gesture with the aid of producer Greg Kurstin (Adele’s “Hello,” Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger,” etc.), the album misjudges the line between pop’s universals and specifics. It’s broad in sentiment and unspecific in feeling. Chvrches feel swallowed up in production. The hooks aren’t great and the singles, especially “Get Out” and “Never Say Die,” drift between repetitive, flattened choruses and verses unanchored to any specific image or idea. The heart of earlier efforts beat best affixed to real aches, a tether between renunciation and resolve (hope operates as a line through misery: “The way is long, but you can make it easy on me.”) Love is Dead is formally earnest and it succumbs as a product of its (unearnest) production, an art of sincerity lost underneath. Love is Dead, damnably, is sincerity in place of irony, which is to say sincerity outside irony. It has no world to tease of tense.

“Rhythm doesn’t stand for anything. It can’t be proven to be in any privileged relation to the unconscious, and the same is true of melody.”

Critical narrative (unlike the unconscious or sound or pop music) is a code no one can understand but everyone explains. Unlike the bolded text framing this review (notes on pop music-politic, Green Gartside and Mark Fisher in discussion), critical narrative is neither aphoristic nor hypothetical. It isn’t excited when it’s proven wrong. Rather, art that bucks the trend assigned to an artist is absorbed into the narrative. We always knew Scritti would disregard post-obtuse punk for pop success/ failure. We always knew Kylie would release a retready country record in 2018; we were laughing before it dropped. We always knew Mark Fisher would kill himself. We’re sorry for that, sure, and we’ll write a tribute, probably, but it’s all there, in the work’s words, right?

Critical narrative has already moved on, like it always already does. It lacks the thing that makes Love is Dead flawed and flecked and straining, an exhilarating listen, months later, months after a review could be due. Critical narrative has no time for empathy. And beyond the product of pop (what sound seems to be) and the properness of reading art via product (how Chvrches means), the same narrative sketched above sounds different. Extract explaining, shift back to knowing. Or: “I feel, I feel, I feel/ You know I feel for you” (Kylie, “I Feel For You)

“In pop music, we are dealing with a history of production that has made the improper proper.

“Do you really believe that you are one of a kind?” Empathy, body to body equivalence, is a system of improper conclusions. In order to wholly feel another body’s pangs and aches, another body has to leave its self behind. Under all the proper production, Love is Dead litter glimpses into pop music as empathy, a force aimed at improper progress. Songs detail broken hearts and lost loves but never weaponize apathy. Like life and death, love and ends, empathy breeds equivalence, “And you could be my remedy/ If you could show me love,” a sound through despondency.

“Graffiti” paints the foolishness of an ended tryst while celebrating the feel of being foolish: “I’ve been waiting for my whole life to grow old/ And now we never will.” Why should we sentence our selves to despondency? “Get Out,” the best buzz of the singles, abandons apathy while remaining affixed to our (and other) bodies. Repetition is a fixture of most of these songs, Lauren Mayberry turning and returning to the same words again and again (“Get, get, get out of here/ Can we get out, get out”; “Forever, forever, forever, forever/ I told you I would hate you till forever.”) Repetition highlights a moment almost maddeningly (Green Gartside: “If in doubt, I opt for stupid. I write lots of lyrics, and end up throwing away anything that sounds too clever”), but the madness here is of prizing others like we prize our selves, illogic only in service of something like love. And with “Graves,” Love is Dead shows what that madness is for, detailing bodies on shorelines and mad kings in high castles. It doesn’t bang like “Keep You On My Side” or even “Lies,” but it engages in engaging, even with the monsters: “If you don’t have a heart, I can offer you mine.”

Love is Dead fits the complaints of its narrative, sketched above and elsewhere. It is often not as exhilarating as other moments in Chvrches’ breadth. The mode of proper production disservices the trajectory of an improper urge (namely, that bodies can know bodies through singing and dancing.) Pop is at its best improperly, transfiguratively. But seeming to know doesn’t stand for knowing to feel. And to dismiss any pop as broad and derivative means siding with seem over feel, irony over sincerity, apathy over empathy. “Ask me no questions, and I will tell you no lies,” Mayberry sings, confessing, “I’m not asking for a miracle.” And there as with the rest of a frustrating, exalting album, what initially feels like formal sincerity is revealed to be empathy in place of sincerity, which is to say sincerity through irony.

“Out in the general text, resemblance passes for truth. In my little hot house, the appearance of difference passes for truth. And it goes on.”

It’s easy to feel despondent. Mark Fisher killed himself, seemingly when he’d found a way through writing to keep living. Green is mostly functionally self-disappeared, no longer making sounds. Kylie’s still around, but in the mostly retro-mode country-impression, Golden. And Chvrches made the overproduced, under-realized Love is Dead

The miracle of pop music isn’t its resemblance to truth, but rather its creation of it. Pop bangs best in the empathy mode; the beat moves our bodies when we measure it against our hearts. Empathy, a philosophy of hearing and feeling heard, is paramount to pop, via Gartside (“To do what I should do/ To long for you to hear/ I open up my heart”) and Kylie (“Do you wanna hear me sing?/ Pop, pop, pop, pop”) and Chvrches (“If none of this is real/ Then show me what you feel”). Or: “I’ll meet you there, at the moment where despair end and tactics begin” (Mark Fisher.)

Maybe empathy is the tactic and the beginning. Maybe all it is is getting into a loop, bodies in sync with bodies. It goes on. Dancing is still honest, like, “When I go out, I wanna go out dancing” (Kylie, “Dancing.”) The way is long, but you can make it easy on me if I make it easy on you. Or: “You better give up on giving up.” (Chvrches, “Deliverance.”)

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