Ever since they barged onto the pop landscape, Chvrches have been a bit of a contradiction. Much like the structures from which they take their name, the music of Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty is all about scale, large and small. They summon majestic sounds that could fill a canyon, and etch in microscopic details that you can overlook if you’re not paying attention. Their debut album, 2013’s The Bones of What You Believe, was a stunning example of a candy-coated crowd-pleaser that sounded better on headphones. It was like an oil painting where you can only see the brushstrokes from a few feet away.
On its face, Bones was a cut-and-dry synthpop album. But far from the under-thought, over-processed production pursued by many of the genre’s most successful troubadours, Chvrches’ music seemed measured, considered, even fussy. They were inclusive without ever seeming making it seem like that was their goal. On the other hand, Every Open Eye does feel as though it is trying to reach everyone all at once, and hits its marks less frequently than its predecessor.
Although it has a more commercial bent, Every Open Eye contains many of the same dazzling, latitudinous production values. Chief architects Cook and Doherty seem determined to outdo themselves not by necessarily providing something different, but by just giving more. They employ a greater range of tempos and styles; every byte of sound is saturated. Aesthetically, it’s a modest success, channeling the ghosts of heavyweights like MJ, Prince and Depeche Mode through the modern digital labyrinths.
Every Open Eye begins as a continuation of Bones. “Never Ending Circles” and lead single “Leave a Trace” are classic Chvrches, if such a thing exists. Mayberry’s cherubic voice establishes the ground rules immediately: “No more bones and I will tell you no lies/This time at least I am not so cold/You give me everything I never deserve/This time you know I’ll leave/Here’s to taking what you came for.” It’s a thesis statement if there ever was one.
Between Eye’s many highs and lows, Mayberry is the constant. Even the more underwhelming tracks like “Empty Threat” or “Bury It” contain some bristling emotional content, and her idiosyncratic mean streak remains. She can transform from vicious to vulnerable instantly. “Playing Dead” and “Clearest Blue” in particular are disarming performances. On the former she gracefully flips from resentment (“There are no silver linings in anything you said”) to stoic resolve (“I will take it all in one breath and hold it down”). Musically and compositionally, the latter towers above everything else on the album. It makes tremendous use of the same pre-chorus fake out that gave tracks like “Gun” and “Lies” such high replay value, and the climax is something to behold. It’s a bouncy, euphoric drop that sounds like the best electro jam Cut Copy never wrote.
While she brings some much-needed snarl to Cook and Doherty’s twinkling, towering edifices, Mayberry also shows a tendency to veer towards preciousness on some of the albums bubblier tracks. “Make Them Gold” is perhaps the worst offender of the bunch, its melodies so smotheringly optimistic they would have been cut from the Frozen soundtrack. “Afterglow”, more of an epilogue than a closer, suffers similarly. It also seems somewhat tacked on, out of step with the sugary, dopamine rush the rest of the album strives to deliver. Iain Cook’s lone song, “High Enough To Carry You Over”, deserves mention as well. His vocal abilities have improved markedly over the past two years, and he delivers a wistful turn here.
You get the sense that Chvrches are caught between two worlds on Every Open Eye. It’s hard to argue with the fundamentals of their sound, but rather than deepening their world, they’ve broadened it. The ambition on Every Open Eye is obvious, and Chvrches seem willing to relinquish some of their originality to take the next step. Nor does the album possess the thrill of the new. But it’s still more carefully constructed than 90 percent of what the genre currently has to offer. B MINUS