Last Monday after a long, coy fan dance (that, let’s face it, totally worked) Portland disco/pop act Chromatics finally released their new record, Kill For Love, also providing a full-length stream. Instead of announcing a release date and prepping traditional publicity towards it, the band (and their label Italians Do It Better) produced a steady drip of hazy soft-focus videos/embeddable blog fodder. It’s quite possible that the record really wasn’t done until just this second, or it might have been shrewdly withheld. Either way, as a tactic for building anticipation, it was unusually effective, bordering on maddening. It made me weird out in this space, previously, and if this post is any indication, I wasn’t alone. Compounded with the promo blackout for the Sleigh Bells record earlier this year, it seems we may have reached a tipping point where holding back records for instant, simultaneous listening and subsequent Internet buzz is the favored tactic over making sure media outlets have a nice and cushy lead time to develop a reasoned opinion? And that may not matter to most people, but it’s compelling me to type a frowny face emoticon……right…..now. 🙁
But anyway, now that we’ve got it, and had a full weekend for which to listen repeatedly (given its vast 90-minute run time, no casual commitment) let’s talk about it, like, forever…
It’s pretty great, to start. Producer Johnny Jewel, whose twilight-in-neon aesthetic has spread across many bands, projects, vocalists, zeitgeist-gobbling Gosling star turns, has been building to this for five nearly silent years. Chromatics seem to be his most perfect vehicle. Glass Candy and Desire have their moments. I still get a little geeked about Farah’s supremely dead-eyed “Law of Life.” But it’s Ruth Radelet’s softly faded presence that suits his music best. The band’s pure pop songs, the ones welding her narcotized sighs to his Italo-synth throbs, always felt elevated above his other work. She’s no virtuosic diva, to say the least, but on the tracks where she wasn’t present, you missed her.
Watching all the promo videos, waiting for the album to drop, I was worried that the new material felt like more of the same. Now, I guess it’s more apt to say it’s the same, but more. Every mode that Jewel was working during his triumphant 2007 is represented (his early goth-punk rock days remain long gone), enhanced, strung together into one extra-length pharmaceutical dream. While his sound’s—and the Italians Do It Better label’s—previously definitive statement of purpose was probably the scattered After Dark compilation, or for impact the Drive soundtrack (which only actually featured a few of their artists) now it’s Kill For Love. Incontrovertibly.
It might be too exhaustively definitive, even. It feels shamefully ADD to be perplexed by paying attention to something for an hour and a half, but it clearly runs counter to the moment, in which records half this length are said to be “epic” with a straight face. The singular mood is designed to be immersive, so much so that breaking it up with Spotify ads every so often would be a spell-breaking bummer. The key, as you might expect, is successful pacing. As much as you want to talk about the thing itself and not the associations brought to it, you really do have to mention the film score he wrote for Drive here. Even though it was ultimately shelved, the process of actually pacing a long string of music for narrative effect had to have a shaping influence on this feature-length album. Remember, their last record Night Drive was subtitled: “Original Motion Picture Soundtrack IV.” Sure, the producers punched up the title a bit, but Drive was basically that imaginary film. (Michael Mann made a few real ones, well before that.) Roughed up ever-so-slightly from his frustrating Hollywood experience, Jewel can actually hit that mark now. And Kill For Love does work like a really good soundtrack album, front-loading with killer pop singles, then wandering off for long background sections, snapping your focus back occasionally before the long, slow fade. I can’t say that I love the couple of melancholy Auto-tuned tracks as much as the material featuring Radelet, but they do change the dynamic, creating anticipation for her return (and tend to feature some of the record’s best rhythmic builds as a bonus). You can turn it off after the first half-hour of bliss, if you’ve got somewhere else to be, but the record keeps ably on.
There’s a sense of rock n’ roll excess to the sprawl, a “fuck-your-attention-span” grandeur that has obviously been a long preoccupation of Jewel’s. It opens with a cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My,” perhaps as infamous an elegy for rock music as there ever was. In their previous cover choices—Kate Bush, Bruce Springsteen—they’ve always aimed to spin rock n’ roll gravitas into dance club come-down. This music imagines an alternate universe in which a baseball stadium full of rock thugs listened to disco records and made out, rather than burning them at center field. “Into the Black,” as they call it, is their most explicit statement of purpose in that regard. “Rock n’ roll can never die,” but we can’t control the turns it’s going to take, or who’s allowed to take up its mantle. It’s significant to note that guitar tones, like sonic representation of a big city still miles of highway ahead, are often more important to the overall mood than synths and beats are.
But it’s that zoned-out mood that will, I’m sure, spur a backlash as quick and savage as any we’ve now come to expect. It’s pop music that’s not particularly alert in the moment, dance music more often suited to half-lidded swaying. It’s retro in a way that feels familiar, but isn’t quite. Spin editor/general malcontent Christopher Weingarten recently tweeted: “All this “tastemaker” “buzz” about Chromatics and M83 makes me think my generation would burst into tears over an Alf re-run.” The implication is that we’re all retreating into the womb of familiar, shoddy, late-80s cheese in which our consciousness formed. But man, forgive me if I don’t remember the malls, supermarkets, and parents’ cars of the era sounding this minimally sinister. At all. Web-enabled film and music nerds only really discovered Italo-disco and minimal synth scores with infinite file-sharing and Wikipedia access, right? It’s not like Michael Mann’s Thief got as much basic cable replay as The Goonies did. (Where, pray tell, are all the modern Cyndi Lauper clones???)
The whole thing actually seems weirdly current, in that our in-the-minute aesthetic basically belongs to Instagram, the iPhone photo-sharing service that’s turned us all into that creepy kid from American Beauty. (“Look at the way the light hits that garbage bag. Isn’t it beautiful? American beautiful.”) The creeping dread that what you are presenting doesn’t matter so much, as long as it it’s caught in a golden hour glow. All of these arguments that we keep having, whether it’s over this, or Beach House, or chillwave, or whatever, boil down to a shift in which atmosphere has come to be valued as much as urgency in underground pop. Though I think that claim undersells the recurring patches of nervous energy in Jewel’s synth patterns, I expect Kill For Love to get painted with that broad brush as well.
But even acknowledging traits that are bound to annoy, I can’t help but like it a lot. Its construction is sharper than detractors will grant. Its detachment is so undeniably pretty. And any 90-minute record that ends on a 14-minute ambient crawl called “No Escape” has to have been made by someone with a keen sense of humor, right?
Follow Jeff on Twitter @jeff_klingman.