Like a lot of putatively “serious,” “independent” popular music today, The Bones of What You Believe, the debut album by the much-hyped Scottish synth-pop trio Chvrches (pronounced “Churches,” but I prefer “Churches with a v”) is about the joy of adolescent brooding, or, less charitably, the brooding of adolescent joy. The “hits,” which will already be familiar to those who have anticipated the album, surely deserve at least the charity of backhanded compliments. The melancholy electro-doodling that fills out the record may or may not.
If adolescent sounds like a harsh characterization, it’s worth bearing in mind the breadth and frequency with which it can be appropriately applied to contemporary first-world life. We are all adolescent now, it might be said, or else we consciously feel ourselves not to be. Youth culture is the standard against which we see ourselves as maturing—and dying. What makes Chvrches adolescent is also what makes it alive. It’s the bombastic, swaggering dance beats. It’s the shimmering, melodic synth lines. It’s the fragile self-righteousness in indie girl-next-door Lauren Mayberry’s voice. Above all, it’s the grandiosity of the scene in which this music can make us feel at home. It’s a dance floor on which we’re definitely not having a good time but, if we’re lucky, we may just be turning our frayed anxieties, hopes, and heartbreaks into transcendence.
Chvrches ought to be—and at its best is—a flashy, melodic dance pop outfit. The group lives up to that description only occasionally, however. The Bones of What You Believe doesn’t get any more danceable than such viral cuts as “The Mother We Share,” “Gun,” and “Lies”—the strength of which has propelled Chvrches’s debut to its highly anticipated status. All three tracks are jammed into the first half of the record, making for a transparently front-loaded letdown. The Bones of What You Believe loses steam quickly, leaving nothing new that approaches the promise of the group’s early releases.
Even more than by its disappointing second half, though, Chvrches’s debut is weighed down by its self-seriousness. As if unabashed joy or unadorned yearning were somehow superficial, the trio insists on turning every “complicated” tension of modern romance into epic nausea. Thirty years ago, a young dance pop singer with far grander aspirations knew that there was maturity in embracing the superficial—liberation in accepting the universality of one’s deepest cares and concerns. Rather than cloud her beliefs and desires of love and glamour in awkward metaphors better suited to the freshman seminar than the dance floor, she belted out the clichés so well she made them her own. “You must be my lucky star, ‘cause you shine so bright wherever you are,” the material girl sang—to her beloved, or maybe just her crush. She was uncomplicated, universal—true. Three decades on, her first-order narcissism now seems downright communal.