A Broken Kind of Paradise: Chromatics’ Kill For Love Reviewed

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.”


Chromatics – The Page

Chromatics – These Streets Will Never Look the Same

Chromatics – Birds of Paradise


We Are Messy and Unplanned: Rae Spoon’s I Can’t Keep All of Our Secrets Reviewed

Montreal’s Rae Spoon has an incredible work ethic that’s really a bit mind-boggling to keep up with.  Since debuting in 2003 with Throw Some Dirt on Me and releasing five albums since then, this transgendered singer-songwriter has steadily moved from the musical sphere of twangy country and into the realm of indie electronica, never sacrificing their talent for crafting a catchy hook and for pulling the listener in deeper with layered lyrics of almost-love and loss.  True to Spoon’s biography on their website, I Can’t Keep All of Our Secrets is, to date, the most electronic album Spoon has made, continuing in the path begun by 2008’s superioryouareinferior and 2010’s loveisahunter of fleshing out pretty pop songs with sometimes discomfiting electronics and painful, yet wholly poetic, personal insights.  Spoon tours almost constantly and I’ve been lucky enough to catch them twice here in Winnipeg over the last couple of years.  With another North American tour on the immediate horizon, complete with a Winnipeg date, I don’t think I’m off the mark at all when I say that that’s a super impressive workload as well as the makings of a career that has inspired fans from all over the world and continues to do so.  Once a fan of Rae Spoon, it feels very much like you’re on the journey with them.

I am happy to report that Spoon’s work has picked up again from the slight disappointment, in my mind at least, of loveisahunter, and returns to the form last seen on career highlight superioryouareinferiorI Can’t Keep All of Our Secrets is that beautiful thing, something that makes me pay special attention to an album – on the surface it’s beautiful, melodic, upbeat, often happy, and even glossy.  Dig deeper at the lyrics, and they counter that musical contentedness with doubt, tentativeness, and isolation.  Like superioryouareinferior, the emotional terrain Spoon traverses is often laid out in the form of actual physical terrain and particularly Canadian geography and natural phenomena.  Here that natural Canadiana is complemented by references to iconic English geography in mentions of the Thames and London more generally.  And, like usual, what’s best about this Rae Spoon release is their voice, easily able to navigate the trickiness of doing country music without sounding like a kitsch retro act and perfectly suited to this low-key kind of electro, humanizing and making real the synthetic sounds behind the words.

“Ocean Blue” serves as an album opener with force, announcing to listeners that Spoon’s country tendencies have been abandoned, at least for the duration of this record.  An upbeat synth figure bounces lightly along, while a bass part, suggestive of the depths of the titular ocean, pulses and injects the light with something altogether darker.  Spoon’s lyrics tell of the alienation of a strange environment that finds its metaphorical counterpart in water.  Yes, the ocean is a symbol for something much more intimate: “Strange to each other and lost in a country/Lost in our bodies with nothing to hold us/We drifted together out past the breakers.”  The water is enveloping, overwhelming, and foreign, and so is the emotional geography of the relationship that Spoon’s narrating.  The engulfing nature of the water isn’t the only thing on their mind here, however: the weight of a partner’s “secrets” pulls Spoon to the ocean floor and there they sit, waiting to be found.  Ultimately, dwelling on this relationship is dangerous for Spoon: “If I look for the memories I get tangled on them/If I hold on to you then I start sinking.”  This time, the water takes control, with Spoon losing both themself and their partner to the vastness of the ocean.

The theme of alienation continues on the next track, “Crash Landing,” and particularly in its repeated refrain of “We don’t belong to each other/We don’t belong to anyone.”  This lyric could be interpreted in many ways, but I think of it as being about the brevity of hook-ups and fledgling relationships that don’t last.  There are certainly emotional connections in these instances, but mostly they are cases of “burning up and going” as Spoon sings; the cause and result of not having a plan.  The title track deals with someone close to Spoon who has disappeared from their life, whether physically, emotionally, or indeed both.  The unsaid questions hang in the spaces between refrains of “I can’t keep all of our secrets”: What am I to you?  Do you miss me?  Why did you abandon me?  Lines like “Maybe when I’m nothing I will understand where you are now” and “Call with no answer” illustrate the bewilderment and frustration of having a shared history with no one to corroborate its existence.  “Are You Jealous of the Dead” is lent ghostliness by the signature vocal waver that Spoon is known for and contains a particularly lovely couplet comparing the dead to the living: “They are written and punctuated/We are messy and unplanned.”  Again, the exhausting wringer of life, its relationships and failures, and its jarring connections with death, is focused on here to melancholy effect.

“Ghost of a Boy” explores, for Spoon, a new soul-influenced sound that is evidenced by an introductory and background vocal line that is presumably composed of Spoon’s electronically altered voice.  It could be argued that this unusual component of the song’s sound is like the ghost of its title, but for me, the warbling and somewhat challenging line adds soul-like warmth to an otherwise sparse and eerie song.  Perhaps this ghost isn’t chilling or creepy at all, but comforting and welcome.  “Ice Caps,” the closing number and song most reminiscent of the themes explored on superioryouareinferior, feels as cool and relatively unpopulated as Canada does.  With mention, obviously, of ice caps, in addition to northern lights and “cosmic rain” as well as the ocean floor inhabited on “Ocean Blue,” this song compares the slowly disappearing polar ice caps to a lover that slowly fades away and becomes strange to Spoon.  The line “There’s less of you, but there’s more at the bottom of the ocean floor” illustrates exactly how a relationship erodes over time, becoming smaller and more insignificant until there is nothing left.

A sad and beautiful album dedicated to themes of isolation and love lost, I Can’t Keep All of Our Secrets is triumphant in – and through – its pain.  Spoon is definitely a master of taking the remnants of life’s disappointments, along with its small pleasures, and transforming them into songs that still manage to uplift even though they’re rarely about happiness.  Both coolly electronic and warmly emotional as well as a testament to Spoon’s songwriting skill and their ability to switch genres effectively, I Can’t Keep All of Our Secrets rewards active yet patient listening and is catchy as hell to boot.

Rae Spoon – Ocean Blue

Rae Spoon – Ghost of a Boy

Rae Spoon will be playing at Gio’s in Winnipeg on February 24.

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