Chrvches’ big push for mainstream success was such a small transition from its usual m.o., most people didn’t even notice. After two albums’ worth of excellent DIY synth-pop (2013’s The Bones Of What You Believe and 2015’s even better Every Open Eye), the band brought in outside producers for 2018’s Love Is Dead, a record that amplified everything the group had already been doing, without necessarily improving it. (If anything, the record felt a touch overlong, drawn out in places its predecessors favored economy.) There were some flourishes that felt closer to mainstream pop than anything the band had done before, but really, the album mostly emphasized how close Chrvches already was to both the radio-ready sounds of contemporary Top 40 and to the ’80s-referencing electronic music from which Iain Cook, Martin Doherty, and singer Lauren Mayberry obviously took inspiration.
Now, three years later, the group is back with its fourth LP, and in trying to return to its fundamental mission (the outside producers are gone), the band has created its most mature work to date. Rather than trying to replicate the all-killer-no-filler bombast of Every Open Eye, Chvrches is allowing itself the freedom to be more downbeat both musically and lyrically. Yet once again, expanding its range and sonic palette ironically ends up leaving the band sounding more like itself than ever, in a good way. If Love Is Dead was the sound of a group trying a little too hard, Screen Violence feels like the result of a group that has grown up, cast off its youthful hunger for mainstream acceptance, and dug into its passions, arriving back at the very impetus that drove a trio of music-loving Glasgow punks to birth the pop perfection of “The Mother We Share” nearly a decade ago. “Killing your idols is a chore, and it’s such a fucking bore / ’Cuz I don’t need them any more,” Mayberry sings on “Good Girls,” and it sounds for all the world like someone who’s made peace with the way the world operates, both shitty and not—and is eager to move on.
There’s a world-weariness to the lyrics on Screen Violence, but they come across as earned, the sound of hard-bitten artists punching back at the cruelties and indignities of a world with a never-ending supply of misogynists ready to flood Mayberry’s inbox with another round of anonymous rape and death threats. From the anti-patriarchy screed of “He Said She Said” to the don’t-let-the-bastards-drag-you-down frustration of “How Not To Drown,” this is a record that decidedly speaks to the bullied and beaten down, but without the condescending sense of pandering that usually attends pop-star exhortations to embrace your special-ness, or whatever. Mayberry sounds like she’s been through the ringer, but is still ready to hand you a baseball bat and take on the assholes.
Even better, however, is just how much the record embraces deeply felt emotions of heartache and hunger, feelings that are the bread and butter of pop music, but which Mayberry still manages to deliver with a lacerating edge of ferocity, rendering her distinctive turns of phrase eminently relatable. “I cheated and I lied / But I meant it when I cried,” goes one particularly inspired couplet on album opener “Asking For A Friend,” a song that finds the narrator basking in their failures, yet emerging determined to do better. “I filled my bed with my regrets / But it hasn’t killed me yet.” Penitence rarely feels so invigorating.
The trend continues throughout, rarely flagging in passion or (more importantly) skillful arranged songcraft. “Asking” starts out slowly and reflective, before an insistent drumbeat joins in, and then, halfway through, a cathartic uplift of synths and rhythm-section bombast launch the music into orbit. “California” uses a bedrock of guitar and washed-out keys to deliver a testament to letting go of love, no matter how difficult it may be to admit something isn’t working (“I know love is delusional / And I hate when I’m wrong”). And “Nightmares” turns a wary eye inward, as Mayberry recounts the challenges of forgiveness, both for yourself and others, especially when you’re busy singing songs of avoidance or retribution (“Another ballad that won’t make amends… another poem designed for revenge”). The album’s playful sense of musicality achieves maybe its best synthesis of contrasts between instrumental uplift and lyrical pummeling on “Violent Delights,” with its variegated levels of drums and and synths rising and falling in line with a brutal lyrical recounting of how the world can take its toll on you.
There’s a degree to which James Joyce’s famous line, about how a book it took him ten years to write should take you ten years to read, comes into play here. This is obviously an album that, much like Chvrches’ others, was painstakingly fussed over down to its infinitesimal components; yet what at first seems like a growing pain of a record slowly accumulates depth and profundity the more you listen. Rather than growing pedestrian through repetition, it actually expands and rewards attentive fans, with each song unraveling new layers and new interpretations. The thematic through line to Screen Violence—our ambiguous relationship to the screens and media that arbitrate our relationship to the world—is handled with a refreshing degree of nuance, neither anti-technology nor admitting defeat in the face of mediated existence. It may not be their best, but it’s their best right now—and it crackles with the energy of a group that’s figured out how to block out the noise and deliver superbly crafted pop music, the kind some idealistic kids would’ve wanted to hear in a Scottish basement over a decade ago.