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TAKE ME TO CHVRCHES: Screen Violence Is Dark, Bold Synthpop

Scottish group Chvrches have been at the forefront of synthpop since their formation in Glasgow in the early 2010s, with each release since 2013’s The Bones of What You Believe sonically encapsulating diverse eras, themes, and subgenres in electronic music. 

Now, in 2021, just as I’ve grown more mature since that time, I realize that Chvrches, too, have grown into their niche as a hyperpop-based rock band. Indeed, with their recent fourth studio album Screen Violence, released on Aug. 27, it seems their signature synthesized sound has evolved into something darker, more sinister, and, as it were, more intimate.

Those familiar with the goth new wave scene of the ‘80s are no doubt familiar with certain influential acts to the movement—Depeche Mode, New Order, and the Cure come to mind. With Screen Violence, I can say with the utmost certainty that Chvrches wished to channel this vibe; the album has an overarching theme of despair and nihilism, which wouldn’t be immediately obvious to anyone familiar with Chvrches. For a good part of this album, the band’s usual aggressive gated synths are foregone in favor of soft, introspective orchestration, complementing singer Lauren Mayberry’s irresistible soprano voice perfectly (a voice which in itself has matured over the ten years of the band’s existence so far).

Getting older and more cynical is both a fact of life and a major theme of the band’s electro-goth venture. In the album’s opener, “Asking for a Friend,” when Mayberry pleads, “Will you carry me home?/Can we celebrate the end?/I’m asking for a friend,” the presumption is that the listener will interpret that line as the narrator asking these questions of the subject. However, she isn’t merely acting as a proxy, like the context would imply; rather, she is literally requesting a friend; someone to hold or give comfort as she grows older, wiser, and more experienced as a human being, for better or worse.

Really, truly, there is not a bad song in this bunch. Other tracks that stand out include “How Not to Drown,” with the Cure’s Robert Smith, as well as the literarily-inspired “Violent Delights,” about recurring nightmares and intrusive thoughts that sometimes accompany trauma and mental illness. In Romeo & Juliet, in reference to his impending officiation of the marriage of the title characters, Friar Laurence warns Romeo that “These violent delights have violent ends/And in their triumph die, like fire and powder/Which as they kiss consume.”

“I feel like we’re all morbidly fascinated with the violence that happens to other people,” Mayberry told Apple Music.

“The verse lyrics are actually a series of nightmares that I’d been having,” she continued. “In a hotel room on tour, I dreamed that people were trying to get into the room, and once woke up having piled a bunch of pillows and stuff up against the door—with no memory of doing it. It’s your subconscious telling you your house is on fire and you need to get out. The wheels were coming off.”

There are also moments of true sanguinity punctuating the existential uncertainty of Screen Violence. “Final Girl,” which is a nod to the same-named horror trope, gives us an unnamed heroine’s inner monologue as she considers what life could be like if she survives the “final scene;” “And it feels like the weight is too much to carry/I should quit, maybe go get married/Only time will tell/And I wonder if I should’ve changed my accent/Tried to make myself more attractive/Only time will tell.”

The “Final Girl” obsesses over questions on her own existence, wondering in her potential final moments what she could have done to change her current situation, and resolving to live life differently if she makes it out alive. 

At some point in our lives, when it comes to grief or trauma, we’re all the final girl, in front of the metaphorical slasher, wishing we had done things another way; bargaining inwardly with some unseeable force for cosmic reconsideration. As is evident in Screen Violence, Chvrches have developed a knack for deep narratives that are still accessible, even at their most vulnerable.

While it may, admittedly, be somewhat reductionist to view the concepts that bolster the album solely through the lens of frontwoman/producer/writer Lauren Mayberry, it’s simply too intriguing to not consider the fact that, when Chvrches formed in 2011, Mayberry was the same age as I am at this very moment, in 2021. 

Around the time I started listening to them, I was beginning to actively wonder who I would be as a person when I “grew up.”

Listening to Screen Violence for the first time actually awoke a realization within me: that I’m still learning and growing up, even now. And the fact that Mayberry and Chvrches are clearly still finding themselves grappling with emotional vulnerability and insecurity—even at nine or ten years my senior—is a comforting one. A big part of maturity is having the grace to look inward and self-reflect about the good and the bad in life. Though it’s dark and viscerally human, the record lends itself well to thoughtful listening, and is the type of project that feels right at home in the often-overlooked canon of goth music and synthpop in general.

It’s not a long album—standard, really, at ten songs in 43 minutes—but Mayberry’s lyricism, as well as the band’s talent behind the synthesizer, have matured like grapes into a fancy-schmancy Napa Valley cabernet; whereas Chvrches freshman album, The Bones of What You Believe, is by comparison lovely, fruity, and teen-angst-y, Screen Violence is not very sweet, but it is truly, at all points, a bold, enchanting treat that deserves to be savored by the listener.