The ever-prolific Johnny Jewel returns to his main project with two new releases that further assert his prodigious talent.
It seems strange that music even follows an album release format anymore. Between file sharing, streaming and the general dissipation of the music industry as a money-making venture, the fact that we continue to both sell and consume music in terms of ten to twelve songs grouped together as some sort of grand artistic statement feels anachronistic. This is largely the only anachronism that Johnny Jewel continues to take part in: otherwise, the Chromatics mastermind finds little use for release schedules or even physical media. The release of Dear Tommy, the “proper” follow-up to 2012 breakthrough Kill For Love, continues to be teased without much development, but Jewel then goes and releases two new pieces of music without much fanfare on his Soundcloud. While Dear Tommy frustratingly remains more of an abstract idea than an actual album, both Cherry and the accompanying Just Like You EP are excellent additions to Jewel’s already impressive body of work.
Kill For Love was designed to be cinematic in nature, a tribute to both Jewel’s love of him (and his work on actual films, most notably Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive) and to the Italo disco that he had so far successfully reimagined with moody, dark edges. There aren’t many directions in which one can go after making something so big and sweeping, and Cherry feels like an appropriate comedown. While Chromatics’ approach remains very reliant on atmosphere, the band doesn't seek to overwhelm the listener in quite the same way that they used to. Take, for example, the album’s title track, which reappears here after its initial release three years ago: it’s a smoother, more rhythmic piece of work, one which only hints at the dread and despair that bubbles underneath all of Jewel’s work. “Headlight’s Glare” continues that trend, feeling more sinewy and rhythmic than what one would expect from the band. They even upend things entirely with “At Your Door”, a song that sounds positively organic. The synths are largely gone, replaced with a warm organ that gives the song a pleasant feel that’s closer to 70s AM pop than it is to the band’s goth-disco hybrid. It all points to a more low-key approach from Chromatics, an effort on their part to sound less like the perpetual soundtrack of an awesome film and more like like a proper band. In this sense, Cherry is an interesting step forward and an exciting indicator of things to come.
However, Chromatics aren’t entirely done with the bombast. Just Like You is built on the same grandiosity that led people to fall in love with the band in the first place. This is exemplified by “I Can Never Be Myself When You’re Around”, the linchpin of the EP and one of the best singles that Jewel has ever released. Chromatics can sound big, but “Around” is huge; it seemingly moves instinctively, eschewing the intellectual for something more raw and purely emotional. When it ends, one feels exhausted; the song is an experience through and through. While nothing else on Just Like You comes close to creating that moment of catharsis, this collection of songs remains grounded in a more openly emotional form of expression. Whether it’s the icy despondency of the title or the more rhythmic yearning of “Lady Night Drive”, Just Like You demonstrates a distinctly human side of Chromatics, one that stands in stark contrast to the robotic precision that is often associated with them.
When a band is married to an aesthetic in the way that Chromatics are, moving forward is a difficult task. Stray too far, and you risk alienating an audience that already loves you. Keep coloring inside the lines for too long, and you run the risk of becoming stale. What makes Johnny Jewel a successful songwriter is how adept he is at working within the confines of his chosen aesthetic and how he makes subtle changes to what he does. Neither Cherry nor Just Like You are a stark reinvention for Chromatics, but the tweaks and variations that they do make ensure that neither could be perceived as Kill More For Love. Though it’s inevitable that these records will be seen as stopgaps once Dear Tommy finally appears, both serve as building blocks for what will hopefully be another masterpiece. It helps that they’re both fantastic records on their own, as well.