At this point in our digitally dependent lives, we all know the horror that a life lived through screens can hold. We’ve been abused by trolls on the internet, and had our perceptions of ourselves warped by filters and our peers curating their own existences to look perfect, leaving out any hint of mundanity or bleakness. We’ve read the sensationalised headlines about video games driving good people to do bad things, or how increasingly gory horror movies are desensitising us to real-world violence. After taking all that in, would you want to listen to an album that’s based around those very things?
If it’s as good as Chvrches’ fourth album ‘Screen Violence’, then the answer will always be a resounding yes. The Glasgow-formed trio might have used the dark side of technology to build the foundations of this record but, rather than crafting handwringing lectures on the dangers of online life, they shape songs that are like mini horror vignettes – rich with storytelling and a side of social commentary.
‘He Said She Said’, the album’s soaring first single, turns the contradictory expectations on women in modern society into a gleaming anthem. “He said you need to be fed but keep an eye on your waistline,” Lauren Mayberry sings at one point. “Look good but don’t be obsessed.” Later, in the chorus, she does a call-and-response with herself on the line: “I feel like I’m losing my mind.” Her echo is fed through vocal processors that make her sound like a frazzled robot, its motherboard frying out from the weight of the world.
On the glittering ‘Good Girls’, the group touch on cancel culture and the slaying of former heroes who’ve been revealed to be monsters. “Killing your idols is a chore / And it’s such a fucking bore / ‘Cause we don’t need them anymore,” Mayberry sings, her voice vividly expressive in its monotony.
Survival – something those idols can’t cling to – is the overarching feeling of ‘Screen Violence’. Sometimes that comes in the feeling of having to fight your way through something, like on the breakbeat-driven ‘Violent Delights’, which depicts claustrophobic, panic-stricken feelings of death, drowning and paralysis. For the most part, though, it comes backed by hope – you’ve made, or almost made, it through hell and a new chapter is on the horizon.
“I fill my bed with my regrets, but it hasn’t killed me yet,” Mayberry sings on album opener ‘Asking For A Friend’, while her bandmates Iain Cook and Martin Doherty build a new universe of Depeche Mode-style electronics around her. On ‘California’, which rumbles on a bassline The Cure would happily call their own, she shares a lesson she’s learnt on the way through her trials: “No one ever tells you / There’s freedom in failure.” Perhaps surviving isn’t always making it through alive, but knowing when to give up too.
The gothic guitar glow of ‘Final Girl’ is the centrepiece of these ideas of resilience and perseverance. It takes its title from the horror movie trope that dictates there will always being one girl who makes it to the end, and Chvrches take us on a journey in sound. “Maybe I should quit and go get married,” Mayberry ponders at one point, fantasising about an easier life and what would get her there. “I wonder if I should have changed my accent / Tried to make myself more attractive.” She’s stuck with this version of herself, though, and victory is ahead: “In the final part, in the final scene / There’s a final girl – does she look like me?”
Musically, ‘Screen Violence’ pulls from two different directions – the shadowy, sparkling gloom of ‘80s goth-pop and the euphoria of the club. ‘Asking For A Friend’ intermittently explodes into a bright rave section that sprinkles giddy joy over the track. ‘Violent Delights’ brings a skittering breakbeat into the mix while, on the calmer end of the spectrum, ‘How Not To Drown’ melds crunching drums and surging blasts of dark guitar to create another Cure-worthy moment. Fittingly, that track also finds Mayberry swapping lines with the Gothfather himself, Cure frontman Robert Smith.
For all the doom and gloom that living in our digital world brings, it’s not all bad, as ‘Screen Violence’ shows. After all, without our devices, apps and screens, this record wouldn’t exist and, given that it’s Chvrches’ best effort yet and a glimmeringly great addition to 2021’s cultural highlights, that would be a travesty.
Release date: August 27, 2021