Up till now, CHVRCHES have been as noteworthy for their hype as for their music. The Scottish electro-pop trio’s savvy release of several songs online, combined with a heavy touring schedule and a penchant for appearing on “exciting new artists” lists, have produced a remarkable crescendo of expectation ahead of their first record, The Bones of What You Believe, finally out last week. It’s the kind of buildup that would’ve been impossible just a few years ago, but thanks to the Internet, CHVRCHES have received an unprecedented amount of coverage over the past year, making them one of the biggest bands never to have released a full-length record.
Of course, all that hype hasn’t been unwarranted. Their big hooks and layers of shimmering synths have left a very strong first impression on an awful lot of people. But it’s one thing to make a strong first impression, and quite another to back it up with substance and staying power. Substance and staying power, not incidentally, are just what much of electronic music has lacked in recent years. Catchiness is fairly formulaic, and so is marketability. Take a couple of Scottish dudes with good musical pedigrees, add an impossibly waifish lead singer, a cool band name and a healthy dose of “catchiness,” and get a bunch of people talking about it, and you have the conventional “next big thing.”
Now at least we have a complete batch of songs to go by, and though it’s not a disappointment, neither does it tell us much we didn’t already know. Four of the songs on The Bones of What You Believe — “The Mother We Share,” “Gun,” “Lies,” and “Recover” — have been circulating on the Internet for months already, and it’s no stretch to say they’re probably the album’s strongest tracks. It’s a little like when the funniest gags in the movie are given away in the trailer.
Not that the rest of the album is filler, though. A few more meditative moments await in songs like “Night Sky” and “Science/Visions,” where the band’s characteristic bright shimmer is put to a more introspective use, and the words hint at a nebulous transcendence: “I will carry you and give you life/I will cover you and show you the way… I can hear you in the overtones/Just an echo of the promise we made.” CHVRCHES have the intangible knack for melody in spades, and singer Lauren Mayberry’s impish and confident delivery is set off well by the big, bright, buzzing soundscapes behind her. It’s a feel-good record, a summer record, full of dazzle and polish, the kind of record you find yourself coming back to when you want to hear something easy and distracting.
Hype is an ever-present feature of music these days, and CHVRCHES have certainly put it to good use. But while their rise has been impressively meteoric, sustaining that success over time is much harder. The music scene is littered with bands that burned brightly for a moment, only to be quickly forgotten. Critics love to chase after whatever is deemed progressive or unorthodox. The music industry has made the cutting-edge into a kind of cult, and bands everywhere are scrambling to oblige them.
Is it possible, though, that all this emphasis on being original is misplaced? In a real sense, there’s nothing new to be said. There is nothing new under the sun. But just because there’s nothing that hasn’t been said before doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to say. Truth is timeless, intricate, and multifarious. It’s always been with us, but we need to be constantly finding new ways to present it, ways that express the inexhaustible diversity and beauty of our individual experiences of the world. That kind of originality is a source of endless and varied delight. But when we try to be original in a desperate, self-aggrandizing way, divorced from timeless truths and chasing quick success, the result is a numbing sameness. Innovation of this kind is fleeting. All those “next big thing” people inevitably move on to the next big thing. The kind of music that lives on in our hearts, that we keep coming back to, is music that’s concerned with universal verities, that grapples on some level with life’s mystery and beauty.
I’m not sure that CHVRCHES are there yet. I’m not saying that they won’t outlast their hype, and I hope they do. But now that their first album is finally out of the way, the onus is certainly on them to give us a reason to keep coming back.
Image via John Speirs.