I’m fine if Dear Tommy never comes out. Well, not fine, but here’s what I mean: I trust Chromatics to express and distribute their art in a way that is ideal for the art and for fans. If there’s anything I’ve learned in my nearly 10 years of Italians Do It Better fandom, it’s to trust Johnny Jewel’s artistic vision and marketing instincts.
Take a look at the years since Kill For Love came out in 2012. The LA-based Jewel, Ruth Radelet, Adam Miller, and Nat Walker have released several albums with some new and previously unreleased songs or reworks; featured prominently on Twin Peaks: The Return; released a handful of notable singles ostensibly from Tommy; and unleashed notable covers of Cyndi Lauper, Hole, and Jackson C. Frank. Oh and they did a full tour of the US and Canada and are currently touring Europe. This is not an idle bunch.
And now we have this exquisite surprise album, Closer To Grey, which IDIB has billed as the seventh album (with Tommy being sixth). It arrived last week, nearly five years since Tommy was announced with an intended February 14, 2015, release date that passed us by, followed by release assurances periodically since then. At one point a couple years back Tommy was poised for release, but a near-death experience in the Pacific sent Jewel re-assessing everything — including the once-followup to KFL.
So here we are. When I wrote that I didn’t care if Tommy ever came out, it comes from a place of having been on the receiving end of a wealth of material from Chromatics. Even before Closer To Grey, I was pleased. And now that Closer To Grey has been on repeat on my various devices since its Oct. 2 release, I’m even more content. Why get hung up on Tommy, when we have all of this lovely music? Let Jewel et al manage the process how they see fit and just enjoy the ride.
So how is the music? I find it a powerfully seductive offering across an economical 12 tracks. Musically, there are elements that stretch back to that transition period in 2005-2007 when the band started shaking off its noise/lo-fi roots and embraced the dark disco, post-punk, and synth-pop for which they’ve been know for the past 13 years. It grew from 2006’s Nite and In The City EPs, and formed more completely on 2007’s highly influential Night Drive and 2012’s Kill For Love LPs. You’ll find that earlier period’s DNA heavily on Closer To Grey, especially Night Drive, although the exquisite alchemy of Kill For Love, their best album, resonates. Sometimes the DNA manifests in samples or lonely tones or cool colors, and sometimes you sense it in a synth melody or guitar tone or drum style. Chanteuse Radelet abounds.
But there’s something about Closer To Grey that separates it from what came before. In terms of studio album releases since they became what they are today, it’s a whole other experience. Night Drive is the neon-blue-on-black soundtrack to, well, night driving. It’s when you take the wheel and head off solo into the night to give your brain a chance to restructure — perhaps to process the killer time you had all night or merely to sort out a confetti of conflicted emotion. Kill For Love is a largely extroverted blast of color that represents a communal exuberance — even the darker, quieter moments aren’t experienced alone.
But Closer To Grey is a sacred, candlelit affair — owing heavily to the acoustic guitar and mellotron sounds. Nevertheless, even the more intense cuts, such as “Whispers in the Hall” and “On The Wall,” a The Jesus and Mary Chain cover, retain a tempered flare that suggests intense intimacy and hallowed ritual. It’s definitely an autumnal Chromatics record.
The Bristolian cuts (and there are a few) unleash a cool, rhythmic pulse, but they dare not go too big or too ostentatious. This isn’t a solo jaunt like Night Drive or a party of mixed emotions like Kill For Love; it’s a circle of close friends and family seated in a small, intimate space taking a meditative breather from the pressure and limelight of our modern era’s cacophony. And it’s a brilliant body of work to experience.
The album kicks off with the tone-setting cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” a clarion call dressed in eerie folk/rock music if there ever was. As they did with Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” for KFL opener “Into The Black,” the band retains their own essence even when they invoke the spirit of the original number. The spirit of “Silence” bleeds all over each subsequent track on the album.
The propulsive “You’re No Good” follows, running along like Night Drive‘s title cut sifted through the sands of a decade-long hourglass. Singer Radelet sings about being attracted to someone despite them being no good for her, and the jazzy disco vibes seem to echo her sentiment. (That familiar feeling!) The title cut — the demo version of which we first heard on Jewel’s Soundcloud page in 2014 — is a layered, guitar-driven dance number that would sit well alongside last year’s delectable single “Black Walls.” Its melodic axe-work and tight rhythm keep the mirrorball busy. “Twist the Knife” has quintessentially Jewel synth melodies and a delightfully intelligent minimalism that make it a great pairing for the title cut.
“Light As a Feather” is where things start getting different. It combines the somber haunts of Simon and Garfunkel on the opening song with the dark, beat-driven enigmas of Portishead, all the while never allowing any question that this is Chromatics through and through. There are a few other cuts on the album in this vein. “Touch Red,” an album highlight, also bleeds Bristol, although in a seductively slower capacity. Radelet sings about the need for color, sharing melody duties with an extended guitar solo that melts slowly like hot candle wax.
There’s a ’70s elegance to the beatless “Move a Mountain.” The electric piano, syrupy strings, and mellotronics all coalesce in a sort-of baroque-pop composition fronted by Radelet, who sings about waiting for someone to call who never does. It reminds me of Carole King’s work or even some of Brian Wilson’s lesser-known contributions of that era.
The beautifully Pumpkinesque interlude, “Through the Looking Glass,” is a glorious exchange between a treated acoustic guitar and a fuzzy electric lead that ebbs and flows with a delicacy to it. Founding member Miller’s primary duties with the band generally are guitar and lyrics (whether writing or co-writing) and here we get a lyrical story as told through frets and strums. (It’s worth noting that unlike on Kill For Love, Miller doesn’t take vocoded lead-vox duties on any songs on Closer to Grey.)
The final four-song run on the record is fascinating. Kicking it off is the delectably sinister “Whispers in the Hall,” which slithers along like a modern-pop-inflected Goblin track — the skittering histrionics of the closing passages are exciting to witness. I’d love to see the specters of this track haunt the denouement of Dario Argento’s Suspiria. The horror-pop doesn’t last long, though. It’s followed by a truly amazing cover of “On The Wall,” blending the ’80s college rock fuzz of the original with Radelet’s transcendent vocal delivery, some colorfully affirming mellotronish synths, and a drum machine that bounces with clock-like precision. Chromatics’ version exceeds eight minutes, offering a blast of uplift that represents the largest, most assertive cut on the album.
“Love Theme from Closer to Grey” reiterates the darkly poignant Bristolian sensibility in a stationary swirl embodied in a hypnotic loop that is both sexy and foreboding — not unlike some relationships. The candles yet burn, but we know the end is nigh.
The closer, “Wishing Well,” is a darkly cinematic benediction laced with the same Wilsonian textures of “Move a Mountain,” leaving us listeners on a note that feels fiercely intimate and lit so very carefully. It’s a stunning closer for its beauty and the organic feel with which it so delicately erupts.
Ultimately, the record closes as it opened: invoking the serious and ethereal spirit of message-driven music amid the ticking of a clock, as if to tell us there’s only so much time and we can’t waste a second of it. That could explain why it’s the shortest Chromatics album in years. Maybe they felt like we didn’t have a lot of time to hear their message. Or perhaps in each tick is a clue to when Tommy is coming out. Or maybe we just need to trust the band.
Closer to Grey is available now to purchase via mp3 or .wav download from the IDIB store. It’s also streamable everywhere. The label hasn’t mentioned a vinyl version yet, but they almost always release everything on vinyl. Stay tuned.
Chromatics are on tour in Europe with labelmates Desire. Get your tickets ASAP.