Since Scottish trio Chvrches’ heralded 2013 debut The Bones of What You Believe, the ’80s-synthpop-revival sound that made the band a darling of the summer festival circuit has been appropriated at the highest possible levels of mainstream pop.
Most obviously there’s Taylor Swift’s 1989, which cobbled together touches of that style with other period references to become the biggest album in recent memory. Similar textures run through Carly Rae Jepsen’s latest release, as well as hits by Sia, Icona Pop and even Lorde. So how do Chvrches (pronounced “Churches”) and their driving force, frontwoman Lauren Mayberry, respond to these incursions on their territory with second album Every Open Eye? By broadening their sound enough to match the charts’ more anthemic, populist version of ’80s revivalism but, thankfully, without sacrificing their own character.
The move has an inherent logic: Chvrches’ secret from the start has been to subtract the distanced attitude from the hipster synth revival represented by the likes of French Los Angeles transplant M83 and restore the warmth of the most shoulder-padded of ’80s pop to the form — they’re as happy covering Whitney Houston as they are alluding to the Cocteau Twins.
The charismatic ex-journalist lead singer and her two bandmates (Iain Cook and Martin Doherty) radiate the sociable unity of a rock band. But it’s one for the EDM age, in which guitar riffs are replaced by clubland pulses and harmonic washes. At its most exuberant, as on the first album’s “The Mother We Share” or the new one’s “Clearest Blue,” it’s as if they’re doing group calisthenics on top of a giant neon keyboard.
The music is digital and danceable but with emotional depth — much of it thanks to Mayberry, who can be dulcet but can also fly and punch. She deals out wounds with measured stabs, here on barbed, perhaps interconnected relationship songs like “Leave a Trace” and “Bury It.” (It has added to the band’s impact that Mayberry has become a compellingly eloquent figure offstage, speaking out against misogyny in social media and music.)
For this album, the trio shunned any temptation to lard on extraneous instruments or reach out to the kinds of blockbuster-pop architects who helped write and produce Swift’s or Jepsen’s albums. The sound is cleaner — there are fewer of the stop-start hitches and processed-vocal effects from Bones — the beats are more -resounding, and the choruses often even more explosive. From -opening track “Never Ending Circles,” it tosses down a gauntlet — the compact first verse even calls to mind the start of Swift’s “Blank Space.” But where Mayberry’s voice goes from there, vaulting into the exosphere like a Hounds of Love period Kate Bush, Swift would never follow.
Chvrches’ tunes are a bit more unpredictable structurally than most pop, with tonally contrasting pre-choruses and choruses nesting like matryoshka dolls, and their lyrics are more interior and wary. They’ve preserved those distinctions by keeping the tiller in their hands alone. That said, an outside collaborator might have gently mentioned how jarring it is when one of the guys occasionally takes over lead vocals, as on “High Enough to Carry You Over.” It’s a well-meaning nod to variety, or equality, but the ear grows impatient for Mayberry’s return.
Otherwise, Cook and Doherty seem to be contributing plenty. The layered rhythms and multicolored flourishes that the trio constructs could stand alongside Eurythmics or Pet Shop Boys, yet they also ring true to 2015. More than half the songs demand immediate replay, and the drabber ones pass quickly (such as “Make Them Gold,” where Mayberry strays into motivational-speaker mode). The question now is whether three downbeat Scots with sore, searching lyrics can dream of a mass embrace. Hopefully, Swift and her peers will be smart enough to keep on lifting their ideas either way.