While most horror films tend to feature a sizable body count, the underlying theme guiding many of the genre’s best movies remains one of survival. The same can be said of “Screen Violence,” the fourth album from Glasgow synth-pop trio Chvrches.
Though it’s not a concept album by definition, an overarching theme of resiliency akin to the plight of a horror film protagonist resonates strongly across the band’s latest 10-track effort. This lyrical evolution finds Chvrches’ singer Lauren Mayberry engaging in narrative storytelling on a level previously unseen from a group largely best known for its carefully crafted explosions of exuberant synth.
While the maximalist sound that anchored past standouts like 2012’s floor-shaking “Mother We Share” and 2015’s “Clearest Blue” remains firmly in place this time around, “Screen Violence” eschews the simply-worded offerings of the band’s past efforts in favor of more nuanced explorations. With subjects ranging from gaslighting (“He Said She Said”) to reductive gender expectations (“Good Girls”) to death itself (“How Not to Drown”), “Screen Violence” finds Mayberry and multi-instrumentalists Iain Cook and Martin Doherty all back at the top of their game.
It’s possible this pivot was partially the result of pandemic-forced circumstances. To create “Screen Violence,” Mayberry and Cook, both living in Los Angeles, were forced to bridge a divide of thousands of miles to unite with third member Martin Doherty, still in Scotland. Obligated to recalibrate their lives and working process to a world of screens, the resulting songs are not so much a departure from what’s made Chvrches a beloved festival staple for the past decade but rather a long-awaited evolution into new and exciting pastures.
On opener “Asking for a Friend,” Mayberry lays out the crux of the matter over a muted fog of synths. “I don’t want to say that I’m afraid to die / I’m no good at goodbyes / I can’t apologize,” she explains. Later, her vocoded harmonies tower above a quintessential Chvrches beat: one that uplifts to anthemic heights in an intoxicating blend of glossy pop while still centered on a message that’s far from cheerful.
The apex of this formula later arrives on “Violent Delights,” one of the strongest songs of the band’s career yet. Featuring propulsive percussion and a truly towering chorus, Doherty and Cook (the latter also contributes vocals on the track) conjure backbeats that expertly skitter and scurry with furious focus as Mayberry laments, “These violent delights / keep creeping into my nights.”
The following track, “How Not to Drown,” sees Chvrches paired with none other than the Cure’s Robert Smith. Fittingly gloomy and gothy, Mayberry and Smith achieve melodic heights as they trade lines over some notably analog-sounding grunge guitar work. A coup for any band built in the shadow of Smith’s legacy, the moment serves as a well-deserved affirmation of just how much Chvrches has already accomplished.
If not representative of a true change in tone for the band, “Screen Violence” is an album that finds Chvrches fully committed to doing whatever it takes to make it through. Though it’s dark, tendrils of hope inevitably sprout through as well, as on the closer, “Better If You Don’t.” Taken together, the group’s fourth full-length is a timely mediation on loneliness and fear, thankfully shot through with a hefty dose of the synth-fueled wizardry that’s come to define the best of what the Scottish trio has to offer.