Synth-pop band CHVRCHES’ fourth album, “Screen Violence,” released on Aug. 27, brings euphorically danceable beats with unexpected influences from other genres. The emergence of lo-fi and chillwave music in pop culture is definitely present in “Screen Violence,” in the use of loops to create syncopated backbeats and the swelling instrumental at the beginning of certain songs, most notably, “Asking for a Friend.” This is not the first time CHVRCHES amalgamated dissonance and reverb in their synths; 2018’s “Heaven/Hell” incorporated this internet aesthetic, making it, once again, commercial. However, with the rise of lo-fi samples gracing TikTok — think 2020’s “Death Bed (Coffee for Your Head)” by Powfu, featuring Beabadoobee and “lo-fi beats” compilations on YouTube, –‘Screen Violence’ embraces this post-ironic sound in a way “Love Is Dead,” CHVRCHES’ third album, never could have.
“Screen Violence” is grittier than any of CHVRCHES’ previous albums, while still retaining the synth-pop aesthetic. “California” uses an acoustic guitar and vocaloid harmonies without compromising the quality of lead singer Lauren Eve Mayberry’s natural voice. In this sense, “Screen Violence” is distinctly synth-pop and not chillwave, even though it dabbles in the popular microgenre, placing CHVRCHES at the familiar intersection of these two stylistic expressions within electronic dance music (EDM), with some rock influences.
Robert Smith of The Cure’s voice alone adds a rock quality in “How Not To Drown,” causing the song to exist in a liminal space between acoustic and electric, though ample guitar and bass sections certainly help. Despite the new creative direction in other songs on the album, the most grunge one is definitely “Better if You Don’t.”’ Pared down to Mayberry’s voice, guitar, and drums, it features synths at one minute and 21 seconds into the track. Producing music in this gray area between genres is definitely an artistic risk, but an artistic risk executed well.
Like “Love Is Dead,” “Screen Violence’” hinges on a theme. While CHVRCHES’ third album posited that romanticism, as a philosophical notion, is either overrated or not worth idealizing — amplified through the blissful terminality of “Graffiti” — the fourth album takes a deconstructionist lens towards film and Hollywood. Mayberry’s saccharine soprano expresses cynical social commentaries, such as, “You’ll die in California, falling in a dream, you lеt, let go.” The messages expressed through the poetry of these songs evoke a Black Mirror-esque notion: We are subservient to our screens, trapped in an inescapable, dystopian world where technology strips us of our agency and sense of reality.
Probably not as horror adjacent as, say, metal band Ice Nine Kills, or dubstep producer Figure, “Final Girl” explicitly comments on tropes in the genre when it says, “In the final cut, in the final scene, there’s a final girl and you know that she should be screaming.” This could be an allegory, evidenced by the shift to first-person pronouns in the pre-chorus. As she articulated in “Heaven/Hell” on her third album, Mayberry feels being depicted on a screen is damaging to her psyche. “Final Girl” is perhaps the best, yet most underrated, song on “Screen Violence.” It ties in this screens-as-a-form-of-horror metaphor so succinctly that Lauren Eve Mayberry is to music what Charlie Brooker is to television. Of course, “Final Girl” has predecessors: The Red Hot Chili Peppers told a cautionary tale in “Californication” and System of a Down espoused a social commentary in “Violent Pornography”’ but neither song is as explicitly horrific or feminist as CHVRCHES’ song. “Final Girl” is socio-politically relevant in both its lyrics and its musicality, not just because author Grady Hendrix released a novel about the trope on July 14, but because listeners have been immersed in bedroom pop and social justice prior to hearing the song.