Chvrches' latest album Love Is Dead may as well be called Common Courtesy Is Dead. The tracks aren't protest songs but enter the political domain anyway, as they expansively explore the politics of discourse. The band's much-discussed pairing with Greg Kurstin (best known for his work with Adele, Pink, and Sia) a significant change in their sound for the poppier; in fact, this record, goth-friendly title and all, may be one of their saddest to date. As news breaks that Trump pulled out of talks with North Korea, listening to the album's opener, "Graffiti," feels as in touch with fears of a deadly nuclear winter as its forebears: OMD's "Enola Gay," the Fixx's "Red Skies," and most saliently Alphaville's "Forever Young" (about kids dying in a nuclear holocaust). It sets the tone for the album, which sticks musically to the band's synth-pop style, but lyrically veers into heavier territory. Though lyricist Lauren Mayberry sings about how volatile discourse has become, it could also be interpreted to be about a romantic relationship or a friendship. She purposefully keeps it universal with her language.
Chvrches explore the idea, almost as a conversation with the listener, across the album. In “Get Out,” she is everyone looking for an out from a conversation with someone who is ideologically opposed to their views, screaming them away on the chorus and shutting the conversation down by the end of the song. “My Enemy,” a duet with Matt Berninger of the National, is a near-literal recounting of talking points that the left and the right fling at each other on Twitter. “Miracle,” finds the narrator looking for both angles, answers, love, and compassion. Those are all fine things but presented in the abstract here, perhaps because they are needed in so many instances. The generalization takes away from the bite of the observation. It renders the band out of step with the movements of today, but it might also be the thing that makes their songs timeless in the grand scheme.
That isn't a new convention. You can find broad, angsty songs about fears of the Cold War and nuclear fallout in the catalogs of the Psychedelic Furs, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Depeche Mode, the latter of whom is a huge inspiration to Chvrches.
The vast difference in where we are in 2018 vs. 1980s America (when the media were barely talking about the AIDS/HIV epidemic, the Equal Rights Amendment failed to pass, and music was literally on trial in Congress thanks to Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center) is what makes Love Is Dead feel a bit toothless. People have been asking since the start of the Iraq War what it would take to make music get political again; where were the protest songs? Why had so many musicians danced around their disappointment and anger?
In Mayberry, Chvrches have an exceptionally outspoken and charismatic lead singer. Mayberry has been talking about the online harassment of women for over five years now. Gender equality is part of her platform that comes up in nearly every interview she grants. This reviewer would like to hear it addressed in the band's music. Instead, Love Is Dead is cloaked in sadness which, while an appropriate reaction to today's headlines, leaves the listener feeling hopeless. With all the activism in the world, it's difficult to connect to Love Is Dead's passivity. Even coming from allies.