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CHVRCHES’ ‘The Bones of What You Believe’ Delivers Dark Pop With a Smile

CHVRCHES The Bones of What You Believe
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: September 24, 2013
Label: Glassnote

At first listen, Scotland’s CHVRCHES could easily fool you into believing that they’re champions of wide-eyed, lovelorn electro-pop. Live they’ve made a ritual of performing “I Would Die 4 V,” their stripped-down, spooked-synth rendition of Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U,” but this homage is probably the most romantic song in the group’s repertoire. Their debut, The Bones Of What You Believe, may be speckled with similarly poignant hooks, the kind that made “Lies” and TBOWYB‘s lead single “The Mother We Share” critical favorites back in the spring. But with the LP comes a reveal: On “We Sink,” frontwoman Lauren Mayberry asks in her particularly calm, charming delivery, “What the fuck are you thinking?” (emphasis on “fuck”) and we’re snapped out of the sparkly landscape into the actual reality of CHVRCHES; they are not to be fucked with.

Comparisons to the Knife are a given with the trio’s initial anonymity and love for the pitchy synths that drove the strongest first releases from both of these electronic-pop experimentalists. And like Purity Ring, CHVRCHES foreground layers of echoing drum machines and powerfully emotive melodies that conceal the songs’ aggressively cynical, cautionary nature. While Purity Ring prefer ghostly lyrics that wallow in back-to-nature self-deterioration (emotional and physical), CHVRCHES bear wounds and deliver threats in such a sing-song way that they become almost comical once the lyrics settle in. (Their musical kinship and recent tour-stint with Depeche Mode may be explained by the band’s knack for alluring pop tinged with mordant melancholy.)

It’s hard to make pop like this; an album that’s so sonically uplifting even when it’s rooted in something much darker. Merging these seemingly opposing ideas so flawlessly is what makes TBOWYB such a compelling listen. There are ballads like “Tether,” whose slow, reverbed guitars and quiet verses break into an explosive hook akin to that of M83’s “Midnight City.” “Recover” is the token “this is your last chance” warning to a relationship on the outs and, as on “Lungs,” the song pushes Mayberry’s vocals into a spotlight that showcases her brazen hybrid blend of Robyn and a goth Cyndi Lauper. “Night Sky” shines with twee indie-pop electronica, drifting through the sort of light, plaintive verses that would make a Postal Serviced Ben Gibbard swoon.

But CHVRCHES’ debut is at its best on its revenge tunes. Tracks birthed from old scars don’t have to be sinister or spooky, nor do they necessarily need to be empowering or defiant. “We Sink” kills with its loving stalker-worship quality (“I’ll be a thorn in your side ’til you dieeeee / I’ll be a thorn in your side for allllwaysssss”) and the hammer-cocked, target-aim of “Gun” is almost flattering (“You had better run from me, from everything you own / Because I am gonna come for you with all I have.”) In a mainstream landscape that’s still reveling in the EDM-fueled fuck-yous of Icona Pop and Charli XCX’s “I Love It,” CHVRCHES’ poppy electronic textures and bleakly lyrical brashness raises the bar.