Photo Credit: Sebastian Mlynarski & Kevin J Thomson
If recent albums from the likes of Lana Del Rey and Lorde are any indication, being a pop star in the year 2021 is no fun; Del Rey spent Chemtrails Over The Country Club’s 45-minutes crooning for the return of her old life, while Lorde’s spent the last four years entirely disconnected from the rest of the world to avoid the “poison arrows” aimed at her. Even those for whom the shine of new fame should still be glowing bright, the task of being a star seems more like a burden than a gift; the singular tear streaming down Billie Eilish’s face on the cover of Happier Than Ever depicts an artist already bruised by fame at the tender age of 19-years-old, while even relative newcomer Olivia Rodrigo can’t deny that, “Damn! It’s brutal out here.”
Given the ever-growing horrors of fame, it’s surprising that more pop stars haven’t explored the horror-movie concept in their music. Leave it then to Chvrches, a band consistently ahead of the curve, to do just that. While hardly household names, the Glasgow synth-pop trio know better than most the ugly downsides of fame – having been forced in 2019 to increase their security after their criticism of Chris Brown led to streams of death and rape threats. Screen Violence – the duo’s new concept album – is a maximalist, dark-pop triumph; one that never lets the heaviness of its themes get in the way of punchy hooks and climactic “drops.”
Screen Violence only follows its horror movie concept loosely – it’s addressed directly on the aptly titled “Final Girl” and channeled through the excellent Robert Smith-assisted “How Not To Drown” – but for the most part, these songs work just as well outside of the album’s concept as they do within it. More so than anything else, these songs prioritize vibes and evoking a general sense of unease and angst rather than trying to rigidly conform to any specific concept. This ultimately works in the album’s favor; making even the heaviest, most distorted moments of Screen Violence seem somehow effortless.
In a just world, Chvrches would be one of the biggest bands in the world right now, but even as the boundaries of mainstream pop continue to be pushed further and further, the music of Chvrches remains too sharp-edged and non-conformist to fit comfortably into the Hot 100; in fact, when the band made their big play for super-stardom with 2018’s Love Is Dead, they lost much of what had originally made them so deserving of such success. With Screen Violence, the band seems more content than ever to follow their own muse, even if it’s at the expense of alienating a wider audience. The result is all the more gratifying for those who choose to stick around.
Screen Violence, it should be said, is not a perfect album; lyricism remains a weak point for the band and clichéd turns of phrases about trying “to hit rewind” and “forgive [and] forget” blunt the impact of the story-telling here. Meanwhile, the arrangements and production here are less varied and more predictable than they were on the band’s 2013 magnum opus The Bones of What You Believe. With all that said, however, the sheer sonic excellence of Screen Violence makes a strong case to not nitpick at small faults and instead devote yourself fully to the ambiance.