This, Chromatics’ fourth album, opens with a cool, detached cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” and with this song it’s immediately apparent that Kill For Love is an entirely different prospect from their last album, 2007’s Night Drive. That record featured a cover of Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love”, albeit filtered through Chromatics’ distinctive disco- and dream pop-influenced new wave aesthetic, but with Bush’s eccentric pop sensibility retained. Chromatics’ choice of source material is indeed indicative of the ambition and tone of the albums to which they belong, and as signalled by “Hey Hey, My My”, Kill For Love explores the downtempo, textured, melancholy, and reflective end of their work. Chromatics, who hail from Portland, are comprised of singer Ruth Radelet, guitarist Adam Miller, drummer Nat Walker, and multi-instrumentalist, producer, and glam rock throwback Johnny Jewel, who obviously wears his influences on his, er…moniker. Radelet’s disconnected delivery is framed perfectly from the start: her voice bears an honest and world weary weight, yet her detachment emphasizes the isolation of the lyrics and the chilly instrumentation of the music enveloping it. It is she who makes “Hey Hey, My My” such a success (surprising though it is at first) and sets the tone for the remainder of the next 90 minutes. Jewel has acknowledged that the band considered releasing Kill For Love as a double album proper, and it’s true that the 16 tracks chosen for inclusion here lead to a sprawling and attention span-challenging single listen of a record, but Kill For Love is truly at its best like this, as a cohesive package, offering musical as well as emotional highs and lows befitting its dramatic and ambitious proportions.
The title track, “Kill For Love” closes the statement of intent that “Hey Hey, My My” opened with the lyrics “Everyone’s got a secret to hide/Everyone is slipping backwards/I can’t remember if I like what I said/I can’t remember it went straight to my head/But I killed for love.” Shimmering synths and swirling, multitracked guitars offer an emotional counterpart to these thoughts, the music seemingly shifting between past and present in its reverence for the synthy eighties and simultaneous concern for remembering hazy past deeds. “The Page” is as addictive as any dark, gothy retro synthpop, fusing the literary imagery of ink, writing, and books with the alienation of a dark and dripping cityscape. The combination of melody, words, and atmosphere culminate intoxicatingly, illustrating perfectly the sadness of nostalgia, comforting and wistfully beautiful in its familiarity. “Lady” opens with a shuffling synth pulse and is soon filled out with a stuttering counterbeat. Radelet softly intones gender-defamiliarizing lines like “If I could only call you my lady/Baby I could be your man” while dynamic contrasts and increasing numbers of steadily pulsing percussion, electronics, and a good measure of analogue-reminiscent fuzz round out the mid-tempo groove of this song.
That slightly scratchy quality is carried over into the next track, “These Streets Will Never Look the Same”, but here an alienating processed vocal is featured, making the dystopian lyrics even more sinister. The words “Spent my life inside this room/And disappeared some more each day/I get so lonely all the time/I try to find my way back home” offer a glimpse into an electronic, highly controlled environment in which nostalgia isn’t an answer but a curse. The repetitive refrain of “The screen stayed flashing in my mind” and several lengthy seconds of disconnected feedback close the song on an outright menacing note. “Broken Mirrors” is an example of the textural subtleties Chromatics achieve on their instrumental numbers, in this case the slow burn of layered synths and sheer swatches of guitar creating a gratifyingly long buildup that does sound remarkably like wandering through the city on a sodden, depressed night.
“The Eleventh Hour” is a slight reprieve from the more percussive, beat-driven tracks featured on Kill For Love, offering an austere string-like introduction and melting away into silence before introducing a dark, barely audible pulse that flickers and then fades. Finally, “The Eleventh Hour” counts down into next song “Running From the Sun”, itself offering the juxtaposition of two piano chords and that processed vocal again. The bareness of the verses is augmented with drums for the refrain and then makes way for a giddily retro electronic break. It succeeds in giving this moody, textural piece some welcome humour as well as stylistic reference points. The simplistic opening figure of “Birds of Paradise” is carried through the song, taking turns with Radelet’s vocal line. She sings “In the setting sun we flew away/To a broken kind of paradise” while alternating piano and buzzing synthesizers accompany her into that unlikely mixture of reality and utopia. “A Matter of Time” is not nearly so optimistic, with the words “Cry yourself to sleep again/The past is your only friend tonight/Your life is only a dream tonight/We all cry alone” further cementing the theme of painful reality taking over from dreamlike past. “At Your Door” offers more harshness: “It’s like we’re all frozen now/Just like ice in a glass.” This time, though, human companionship does offer some comfort in the form of hope, even though it’s not a solution for the ennui and isolation facing us: “You know love never turns out the way we all plan/But the door is still open so give me your hand.”
A voicemail message is at the literal and metaphorical centre of “There’s a Light Out on the Horizon” and it’s an absolutely haunting reminder of the space and circumstances that separate people, despite the constant connections we make. It seems to be suggesting that no matter how many people are split up and for whatever reasons, we will continually forge human connections of infinite variety to try and make meaning out of our lives. At the same time, meaningful connections and relationships are made from endless coincidences and chance encounters. “The River” closes Kill For Love on an appropriate note: the anonymity, missed encounters, and loneliness of the city are given their full and final due. As maudlin as these words are, there’s some hope in the final couplet of “The river’s thirst is so unkind/But I’m still here waiting for you.” An immensely satisfying treatise on the connections between isolation, media, urban landscapes, nostalgia, and lost connections, Kill For Love depicts Chromatics at perhaps the height of their career and most certainly their most powerful and evocative work yet.
“It’s me. Just wondering if you got my text. Anyway. I’m gonna go to bed pretty soon. I hope you’re okay out there…wherever you are. Goodnight. I love you.”