What’s the point of covers? Purists say they’re inherently redundant; cannon fodder for flaccid boy bands that do a disservice to the original artist’s vision. Others overlook transgressions, loving the collision of original intent and style, occasional dreck a necessary evil. After all, who should be denied The Stranglers ripping apart Burt Bacharach‘s Walk On By, or Jimi Hendrix bludgeoning Bob Dylan‘s All Along the Watchtower? Surely the world wouldn’tturn on its axis properly had Johnny Cash never tackled Hurt?Yet it also prompted an abomination from Leona Lewis.
Chromatics set heads spinning with such debate at the start of Kill For Love. Their brave/foolish choice of opening song on their second album following a five-year hiatus is the Neil Young classic Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black). The central, iconic guitar motif is recast in reverb surf, pitted against Ruth Radelet’s blood orange of a voice, iridescent synth and samples. Its midnight neon shimmer is measured, but still swells beyond its means. It’s sumptuous.
But why a cover first, especially after five years? Well, it brings the curtain down on debate just as it’s prompted, something all great albums do in one way or another. The Pixies opened Doolittle with Debaser: “You think this is all we have and that rock has had its day? Well here you go. Now here’s Tame, Wave of Mutilation, I Bleed,Here Comes Your Man…” It’s a provocative move, leaving no doubt where the power is. It also debases (sorry) everything – like the Pixies, Chromatics somehow operate away from an aesthetic, despite identifying clearly with one. It’s a powerful conundrum. When it’s allied to Kill For Love’s dizzying scope, a sequence of songs that has the all-too-rare bravura to hammer home a stylistic agenda over 90 minutes, it combines to form a mesmeric journey. It could do for the synth what Frank Black et al did for the guitar.
The record dives into a set of four tracks that bristle with My Bloody Valentine grandeur married to post-punk grit, but executed primarily with electronics; guitars present, but phased and treated. They’re incandescent electro pop songs most bands would give a collective left nut to do one tenth as well. More than anything, and herein lies the crux, they make you feel cool. Immutably cool. Ryan Gosling cool. It’s hardly a coincidence that previous LP Night Drive was the inspiration for the Drive soundtrack. And that’s the point, isn’t it? That’s why bloggers blog and hacks hack on the muso’s muse – to find and capture something beyond themselves.
But, crucially, Chromatics don’t stop there. Quickly bored with doing pop so effortlessly, they become a dance band. These Streets Will Never Look The Same stretches out to the horizon, a compelling motion blur of street lamp sodium. At eight minutes it feels far too short. They then do ambient with the gorgeous Broken Mirrors and deconstruct even that on The Eleventh Hour. Add electronica, disco, drone, new wave, even techno to the mix; everything that can be drawn from the wellspring of ideas is captured over the course of the record’s 17 songs.
PJ Harvey‘s Let England Shake quite rightly topped many of 2011’s end of year lists, chiefly for its lyrical bravery exploring a nation’s character for good or (mostly) ill. Kill For Love unassumingly scales similar heights, but does so instead by relentlessly tugging at the edges of musical genre, focusing and refocusing the idea of what a band is and should do until designations, really, mean nothing. But it still feels whole. Its successes are no fluke, driven by a force of will that won’t consider whys; necessity conquering fear. It may have taken five years but, despite what Saturday night TV would have you believe, there are no shortcuts to quality. If it’s there, trust yourself to explore and find it. Don’t be bowed.
And that’s the real inspiration. Kill For Love shows that synth/dream/chill/call-it-what-you will pop can be as visceral as rock; the synth as driven and nuanced as the guitar, perhaps more so. Now and again, something comes along that makes things worthwhile. The scope of Kill For Love is one that words can’t adequately capture, but the imagination it fires can. Wilful, startling and effortless, we have a winner.