There’s a point in almost every album where the quality of each new song starts to fade. If you spend enough time listening to music, you start unconsciously steeling yourself for this moment: you’ve blown through all of the album’s singles, you’ve moved past its notable guest stars, you’ve enjoyed a string of thrills for almost half an hour. All good things come to an end, and you lower your expectations accordingly.
When it doesn’t — when an album smashes through the bar you’ve lowered to accommodate it — something exciting happens: you find yourself on unfamiliar ground. How do you react when an album just keeps rising? What’s the right response when an artist manages to stay clear, sharp, and focused until their very last note? These questions pile up exponentially during one’s first listen to Every Open Eye, the second album by Scottish trio Chvrches. You might not hear a better pop record this year.
When the band emerged from Glasgow near the beginning of the decade, they did so almost fully formed. 2012 debut single "The Mother We Share" has served as a template for everything they’ve released since, and it’s still one of their best songs: its synths have the luster of polished silverware, its vocal melody is indelible, and it has a great sense of scale. Each new note glows and fades like sparks being spat from a bonfire into the night sky.
When you consider the band members’ pre-Chvrches work, their immediate deftness with pop music is a mild surprise. Lead singer Lauren Mayberry had played in local folk bands and studied music since her teens; Iain Cook recorded alt-rock that careened between pouty and aggressive as part of Aereogramme; Martin Doherty played live with shoegaze crew The Twilight Sad. None of them were making the kind of music Chvrches makes, but their experience meant they understood quality songwriting — how to give a song decent bones, how to build it and run a highlighter over its key idea.
There's something special about the band's execution
"The Mother We Share" led the band’s first EP, Recover, and their debut full-length The Bones of What You Believe built on its strength when it was released later in 2013. There wasn’t anything novel about the album: take two tablespoons of The Knife, another of M83, and add Robyn to taste, and you have something like the band’s debut. (Contemporaries like Purity Ring and AlunaGeorge released albums that made use of the same pieces around the same time.) But there was still something special in the execution: the band’s mechanical precision, the contrast between Mayberry’s voice and the hard edges underneath her, the strength she radiated at the front of each song. The band’s best work is like a peach, sweetness giving way to a rock-solid core.
Every Open Eye takes all of these distinct qualities and amplifies them, refines them, improves upon them. The band’s sense of its strengths and weaknesses is almost shocking; you leave the album wishing you knew yourself that well. Almost every song is faster, sharper, and tougher than the ones that made up The Bones of What You Believe, and Mayberry’s vocal hooks are weapons-grade. On single "Leave a Trace," she’s defiant and proud; a few songs later, on "Clearest Blue" she pleads for understanding and compromise, wounded but resolute. Halfway through, a two-note keyboard melody is dropped like a warhead into the mix. This isn’t an album interested in restraint or emotional obfuscation. It’s generous, open, and willing to give from the first notes of each song.
Generosity and openness is important to Chvrches
You get the feeling that kind of generosity and openness is important to Chvrches; no one would’ve blamed them for choosing an angrier, more cynical path for their new music. Mayberry has become a surprising standard-bearer in the fight against misogyny in the music community in the two years since The Bones of What You Believe, writing op-eds for The Guardian and meeting hateful Instagram commenters head-on, and Cook and Doherty have stood by her side. But there’s no darkness to the music on Every Open Eye, and there’s no malice — instead, it’s the sound of a band that’s been tempered by turmoil. They understand the difference between shutting down in the face of a challenge and finding the will to come back stronger than before, whether it’s to send a message or to prove something to yourself. And that understanding colors Every Open Eye: its lyrics, its assertiveness, its unrelenting brightness.
The best pop music can have transformative powers. We often play songs for ourselves in times of need, whether at the 20-mile mark of a marathon or in the throes of a breakup. Every Open Eye has been designed to pluck you from whatever pit has swallowed you. These songs have protective qualities, and Mayberry sounds like a helpful spirit on your shoulder. Her combination of sweetness, strength, and benevolence is singular and invigorating; when these songs burst into light and color around her, you’ll feel like you can do anything.
At the peak of "Make Them Gold," she hollers: "We will take the best parts of ourselves and make them gold!" Near the album’s end, she cracks open the grinding "Bury It" with another clarion call: "Bury it! Bury it! Bury it, and rise above! That’s Every Open Eye in two lines: a band recognizing its best parts, blowing them up to the largest size possible, and soaring over the obstacles in their way.