Since forming in 2011, the Scottish trio Chvrches have refined synth-pop for the festival age, taking the chilly atmospherics of early electro and piling on flourishes designed to divert distracted attendees’ attentions away from art installations and friends’ conversations, with vocalist Lauren Mayberry’s airy soprano contorting into stretched-out pleas and percussive stuttering. It’s partly cloudy music, defined by the way its dreariness balances with the glimmers of light that shine through.
For their third album, Chvrches have enlisted Greg Kurstin, whose studio skills have turned Tegan and Sara’s sharply angled harmonies into a baseline for pop euphoria and given Beck a solid middle ground between his genre-bending experimentalism and his singer-songwriter side. Kurstin’s signature doesn’t lie as much in his sonics as it does in his ability to coax out maximalism from the artists he works with, and on Love Is Dead Chvrches appropriately level up, even on the tracks where he isn’t credited. “Deliverance” is spiky yet inviting, its lyrics poking at the hypocrisy of religion; “Never Say Die” builds its drama with swooning synths, with Mayberry’s clipped “never-never-never” on the chorus providing an italicized exclamation point.
The only misstep is “Miracle,” a Steve Mac-produced stomp that seems crafted to help Chvrches crash into the alt-rock-jock-jam space currently inhabited by the lockstep drudgery of Imagine Dragons. Mayberry’s vocal shape-shifts into a distorted version of itself on the verses, then crests on choruses marked by the kind of synth stabs and gang-vocal “oh-ohhs” that dominate your lesser comic-book-flick soundtracks. It’s thankfully bettered by the songs that follow, particularly the burbling Pet Shop Boys homage “God’s Plan,” which features synth architect Martin Doherty on vocal, and the elegiac “Really Gone,” which frames Mayberry’s shivering voice in Twin Peaks-sourced ice. These songs, like the album’s other highlights, show how Chvrches are at their finest when they’re adding dabs of holographic highlighter to structures built on New Wave’s buzzy bliss and post-goth’s gloom.