Coming off of last year’s monster single “The Mother We Share,” many (including yours truly) have been hotly anticipating more from Scottish synthpop band CHVRCHES. Could they sustain the rush of that song over a whole album? Would they be able to bring enough variety in their sugary-yet-melancholic sound to last an album’s length? Thankfully the answer to both of those questions on debut The Bones of What You Believe is “mostly yes.” With the sonic layers to please synth-heads and the songwriting prowess to please everyone else, CHVRCHES has delivered one of the year’s most fully realized debuts and one of the best pop records I’ve heard in ages.
Sonically, CHVRCHES pull a bit from many other synthpop acts. Their music takes the sad qualities and deeper synths of New Order, the sugary hooks of Passion Pit, and the huge synth-drums of M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. The synthy soundscapes created by Martin Doherty and Iain Cook pull all the great elements from these bands and hone them to the finest of points. And with mixing by Rich Costey (who produced and mixed albums by Muse, Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, and Interpol), everything just sounds incredible. Every sonic trick, from the chopped vocals to the variety of synths sounds clear and immaculate. Even as all of these parts start to pile on top of each other (like in “Tether” or “Under the Tide”), no one part compromises the others. Though this is a debut album, every sound is expertly crafted and delivered.
But the best sounds in the world mean nothing without killer songs, and CHVRCHES have those in spades. The first three songs are catchier than the last. The hook from “Gun” alone should bury its way into your head for days. This is all due to the incredibly fitting vocal performances throughout the album. Synthpop has a new queen and her name is Lauren Mayberry. No other voice could fit this music. Their songs (lyrically and musically) occupy this space of vulnerability, especially songs like “We Sink” (“I’ll be a thorn in your side for all time”) and “Recover” (“…and you’ll take what you need and you don’t need me”). Though those lyrics aren’t the best on paper, she sells the HELL out of them. Mayberry’s voice here is wispy and emotive enough to convey the yearning yet powerful enough to work as a great pop voice. At one point she’ll sound vulnerable, the next triumphant. She carries on the great Scottish tradition of joyful melancholic music (see Frightened Rabbit and Belle and Sebastian for examples).
Backing vocalist Doherty is a strong presence on the album, creating the catchiest moment of “By The Throat.” He’s not bad on lead either, as “Under the Tide” works rather well. Unfortunately, he anchors one of the low points of the album, the relatively dull slow closer “You Caught the Light.” The other lowlight is “Sound/Vision,” only because the darker, Depeche Mode-like synth-blitz breakdown here isn’t really their strength. The brighter, more emotional sounds work best (like the cathartic explosion in “Tether” or the twinkling chorus of “By The Throat”). Thankfully, they stick to that sound for most of the album.
While they take elements from many synth-pop bands, none of it plays as unoriginal. The execution here is, for the most part, truly remarkable. Lauren Mayberry is a stunning new presence on these songs, and the variety of synth sounds and tricks are both intricately layered and tastefully implemented. Though it’s a debut, this album is big on an arena scale. Emotional, catchy, sonically immaculate and gigantic, The Bones of What We Believe is probably the most well-realized debut album of the year. If their sound is as fully-formed and confident as it is in these 12 songs, what they could be producing two or three albums from now is a thrill to think about.