One of the earliest promotional photographs of the band Chvrches showed the group in front of a gigantic illuminated sign that read, “There will be no miracles here.” In the image, none of the three members of the band, even the transcendent sprite vocalist Lauren Mayberry, wear anything like a smile. This represented some of the band’s unique power: to craft booming synthesizer pop about crushing miseries, a series of winsome melodies about primal emotional disasters. If anyone in their future audience – one that is surely now far larger than they could have imagined at the taking of that photo in late 2012 – expected salvation in their music, well, don’t bother. It was also a bit blithe for a band so interested in the purifying fires of their own arrangements, an act rocketed to such mercurial fame in independent music circles on the back of lyrics like, “no place for promises here.” These were miracles, small ones to be sure, two synthesizers and Mayberry’s vocal doing a lighter version of the horror-pop that Kate Bush made so deservedly famous. On debut record, The Bones of What You Believe, the band reveals themselves to be in exactly this minor salvation business, chasing their arrangements and melodies around a series of internal troubles in the hopes of finding the transient, powerful redemption of pop.
For fans of the band’s early demos, their Recover EP and one-off singles, there is much familiar territory on the debut album. “The Mother We Share”, “Gun”, “Lies” and “Recover”, roughly a quarter of the debut LP, are mildly re-imagined or re-recorded versions of previously released material. The chorus of “Mother We Share”, the band’s defining moment, is subtly cleaned up from the original single release, synths and Mayberry’s voice unmuddled and crystalline. “Gun” remains a stand-out, placed third on the record, but first in terms of ambition, menacing synthesizers giving way to the bright lights of the chorus. Despite the band’s circumspect gaze on miracles and promises, “Recover” finds Mayberry at the top of the room insisting, “I’ll give you one more chance / We can change our old ways.” The rest of the record, the part Chvrches releases for the first time, suggests a complicated mixture of redeeming fatalism.
The buzzing and echoing “We Sink” crafts this sentiment with troubled deftness. The stakes with Chvrches are always relentlessly high; the metaphors and visual similes wired for maximum collateral damage. Mayberry coos, “We’ve come apart and you made me float like a pretty box of your evil … what the fuck were you thinking? We are gonna fall if you lead us nowhere.” It is the brutal preamble to the chorus, where the band gathers together on, “I’ll be a thorn in your side for always / If we sink, we lift our love.” The power and weakness are laid bare: floating boxes of evil, falling, thorns in sides, sinking and lifting love. The metaphors mix as the arrangement clatters and hammers behind them, a mixture of some of their best and worst song writing. The band is a lot of things by the end of the album: “I’ll be your gun”, “I can sell you lies”, “I’ll be your strength”, “I will carry you and give you life”, “I’m a night sky;” this only mentions a few. It is powerful but blunt electronic pop; hooks always aimed to tear, melodrama at an uncomfortable volume. Still it often works, the stunning second movement of “Tether” with its racing synths and simple lyric, “Feeling capable of seeing the end / Feeling capable of seeing it’s over” turn the simple into the sublime. A band who so often drags the biggest ideas into their song structures and lyrics here find a pleasant medium between the spacious and the small.
The band’s ambition proves finally too much. The last third of the record begins to betray as the song writing grows less firm and Mayberry’s juvenile fecundity wears more and more dilettantish, the band’s screaming vocal loops and synthesizer salvations becoming predictable. The chorus of “Science Visions” is especially trying, and the hook on “By the Throat”, a hamfisted metaphor about gold, borders on cliché. In their most transcendent moments, Chvrches illuminates the incredible power of electronic pop to, at once, raise the emotive stakes and deliver a transfiguration. If their failings are failings in the pursuit of greatness, they are forgivable. If their failings lie in believing their music was never designed to save anyone – “there will be no miracles here” – the band fools only themselves. The Bones of What You Believe holds the stirring power to lift and crash, a marvel only to those who aspire for too little.