The Bones Of What You Believe (iTunes link), the debut album from the Scottish electro-pop act CHVRCHES, dropped today, over a year after their first single came out and a good eight months after I first encountered them on a promotional sampler from a publicity firm the band no longer uses. Three of the album’s tracks have received heavy airplay this year on alternative radio, including Sirius XMU and Alt Nation, so much of what’s on the new album is familiar, but the deeper tracks show greater breadth than you’d get from just listening to the singles, with many harbingers of more promising material down the road.
CHVRCHES is, by and large, the Lauren Mayberry Project, as the 26-year-old singer and erstwhile music journalist dominates the record (and their live shows) with her piercing vocals and impassioned delivery. Singing largely in the first person – more on that in a moment – Mayberry projects a variety of personae across the ten tracks where she handles the lead vocals, occasionally coquettish but more often strong and fearsome, sometimes even stalkerish (“We Sink” has a chorus that starts with “I’ll be a thorn in your side/Till you die” … all righty then), in contrast to her diminutive stature and high register. She elevates some of the filler songs to a different level, and the half-dozen radio-worthy tracks all stand out in large part because of what her vocal style brings to the table.
The band’s music draws heavily from early 80s new-wave influences, particularly Yaz, the short-lived project involving Vince Clarke between his tenures in Depeche Mode and Erasure, but drawing from other sources as diverse as Kate Bush and Prince (whose “I Would Die for U” they used to cover during live shows). CHVRCHES love their synths and they’re not ashamed to put the keyboards front and center of nearly every song, without filling the space between the melodic synth lines and the drum/bass with layers of added noise, meaning that Mayberry’s vocals and the lead keyboard lines are the stars of every track where she sings. That’s most pronounced in “Gun,” the most recently released single from the album, where the counterpoint between Mayberry’s top-register vocals and the descending keyboard lines underpins the conflict she’s describing in the song’s lyrics (where the gun is, fortunately, of the metaphorical variety). When they try a little more layering, like adding reverb to Mayberry’s vocal lines on “Lungs,” the melody remains strong but her voice and charisma are blunted, to the detriment of the overall track.
The album’s lyrics lean heavily toward first-person narratives, which Mayberry makes more powerful with a style that makes it sound like she’s singing directly to the listener, whether she’s threatening you as she does on “We Sink” or is proclaiming herself to be the “Night Sky.” The strongest track lyrically, as well as musically, is the single “The Mother We Share,” which careens to and fro with tempo and volume changes to match the chaotic anti-romance of the lyrics, where Mayberry describes being “in misery/where you can seem/as old as your omens.” Several songs here are built around a single compelling image or metaphor, like “Gun” or “We Sink.” Others run too short and lack that tangible center, such as the catchy “Recover” or the lesser track “Tether,” where the lyrics don’t stand up as well – although Mayberry’s Scottish pronunciation of “don’t” in the chorus of “Recover” is incredibly endearing.
Mayberry cedes vocal duties on two tracks, which robs them of the urgency she brings to the other ten, and was made worse in concert when Martin Doherty took over lead vocals for a song and was off key (as he was when providing backing vocals behind Mayberry). The show I saw, at Union Transfer in Philadelphia, was otherwise outstanding, although it was odd to hear Mayberry’s chatter between songs, almost sounding nervous and dropping f-bombs as if she was trying to show the crowd that, despite her pixie-like appearance, she was fierce. When you sing with a passion that could damascene steel, you don’t need to act fierce. Fierce will list you as a reference.
The Bones of What You Believe is a deep, intense pop experience that doesn’t demean its audience, but at the end of its twelve tracks, I was also left with the feeling that this was more of a coming out party for Mayberry than for the band as a whole. Her presence overwhelms sections where the music feels unfinished or even amateurish, a contrast that was even more stark when I saw them live. Whether the music catches up to the force of her character or she leaves the group for greener pastures, she’s destined for bigger things than this otherwise very solid debut album.