The best dance music is the kind that simultaneously gets you moving and breaks your heart. Some of the greatest club songs have infectious beats, innovative production, but more importantly, meaningful lyrics, and passionate performances. There’s nothing greater than a heartbreaking dance ballad, where the euphoric crescendo feels earned. The first track from Chvrches‘ fourth studio release, Screen Violence, the beautiful “Asking for a Friend”, starts with soft, ethereal synths, rising slowly like a beguiling sunrise, before Lauren Mayberry’s tart, soulful voice clears through the sound with moving words. “I don’t want to say that I’m afraid to die / I’m no good at goodbyes.”
As the achingly gorgeous song continues, the sentiment is heartbreaking. Yet, the shiny, glossy pop keeps the song moving and grooving, marrying the Stranger Things-esque atmosphere with the blissful feeling of a prime on-the-floor banger. Creating warm, emotional synthpop is Chvrches’ forte, and their latest album, Screen Violence, is the kind of bruised pop record that can only be made after a year in which loss defined so much pop art.
Screen Violence delivers for fans of soulful synthpop because it’s the kind of collection that feels emphatic and sympathetic. So much of synthpop can feel cold and distant, but Chvrches’ patented sound reaches for the heart: pulsing, thumping beats, swirling synths, bracing lyrics, and emotional vocals. Though so much of Screen Violence sounds synthetic, there’s a strong emotional core due to the performances and lovely lyrics. The synthesizers work to support the songs. It’s a gentle use of fuzzy, brushed synths that move away from the sharp, glassy sounds often associated with this kind of return to the New Romantic sound.
Although the 1980s impact Screen Violence, this record is not some dusty look back but a forward-thinking album that uses some important musical tropes of the decade to create vibrant and fresh music. Much of that vitality is due to the record’s address of the culture, particularly sexual and gender mores and roles. On the plaintive first single, “He Said She Said”, Mayberry sings of the complicated and contradictory standards on which women are judged. The lyrics are equal parts frustration and resentment, as she slams a lover who is gaslighting, the poignancy underscored by the repeated mantra, “I feel like I’m losing my mind.”
Despite the prettiness of Mayberry’s voice, the spirited spark is glorious to hear on “Good Girls”, which rips apart societal, gendered expectations of “nice” girls by acknowledging sharper and sourer feelings and thoughts. Something is bracing and affirming of a defiant Mayberry insisting that “I won’t apologize again/and/I had never had a taste for liars.” The song’s righteous rebuke of hypocrisy is another moment when Chvrches find that fantastic meeting point in dance-pop when brainy, intellectual lyrics intersect with catchy beats.
Because so much of Screen Violence looks to the New Romantics, it seems fitting that Cure frontman Robert Smith joins Chvrches on the urgent single “How Not to Drown”. The song benefits from darker production than the other songs on the album; the music is slightly harder, the synthesizers somewhat more industrial, the beats hit tougher. There’s a beautiful, baroque feel to the expansive chorus, and Smith’s tight howl adds an invaluable drama to the epic song.
What makes Screen Violence such a successful album is that the songs reach for honesty and candor whilst simultaneously working overtime to get people moving. So much dance music chooses the hooks and beats over the heart, but Chvrches makes some of the most expressive pop music for the dance clubs. There are some gorgeous highlights on this album; there’s no filler, an impressive feat for a record with ten tracks. But the best is the touching final track, “Better If You Don’t”, in which the lyrics explore the despair of lost love, as Mayberry faces challenges such feeling “never as alone as I am back home” and admitting that “no one broke my heart quite like that man.” It’s a powerful capper to a record that embraces all of the sticky, torchy emotions of being human.