Favorite Tracks: “You’re No Good,” “Twist the Knife,” “On the Wall”
Music fans wait a lot. Sometimes the waiting is brief yet acute, like the intermissions spent alone between opener and headliner where you try to strike the perfect balance between looking at your phone and indulging your newfound obsession with the theater’s chandeliers. But mostly, it’s mild frustration drawn out over years or even decades spent in anticipation of a band’s next album or reunion. From D’Angelo to The Avalanches to Jai Paul, the past few years have seen all sorts of hibernations come to a triumphant end, but countless others have been brief moments of resolution that fizzled out into disappointing records or tours. It’s tough to tell if those resurgences have been symptoms of a culture more nostalgia-obsessed with each passing day, or it may simply be I’m now old enough to have done the waiting. One more wait has paid off, partially.
Chromatics have spent the past seven years in a limbo state, with intermittent teases of a follow-up to their fourth studio album, KILL FOR LOVE. The follow-up, billed as DEAR TOMMY, was first announced at the end of 2014, and the next year ushered in three new singles from the upcoming LP. As hype for the record grew, the band fell silent until 2017 when band leader Johnny Jewel gave an interview in which he recounted a near-death experience that led him to destroy all 25,000 physical copies of DEAR TOMMY and start the record over from scratch. By this point, DEAR TOMMY had developed a reputation somewhere between mythos and meme, with some fans clamoring “DEAR TOMMY WHEN?” while others suspected the record would never surface. 2018 and 2019 saw similar teases as more songs materialized without an LP announcement until October 1st, when Chromatics shocked fans with news that their next album was coming out the next day and it wasn’t DEAR TOMMY.
Instead, we get CLOSER TO GREY, a record far shorter than their previous Italians Do It Better installments. The album’s brevity intimated at a welcome change of pace—previous Chromatics records have been bogged down by long stretches of filler—but this album falls privy to the same flaw, and it’s all the more glaring without a larger suite of quality tracks to buffer the boring bits. The snoozer stretch (from “Light As a Feather” until “Whispers In the Hall”) has some interesting moments, between the whimsical whistling melody on “Move a Mountain” and the band dipping their toes into trip-hop on “Touch Red,” but on the whole it’s quite easy for your mind to wander elsewhere during these tracks, which is a shame, because Ruth Radelet lays out a bulk of the record’s motifs in this run. Radelet grieves a failed relationship and ascribes her emotions to color and symbols of strength and weakness while exploring impermanence and the limbo preceding closure. Her vocals on “Move a Mountain” almost redeem the middling instrumental, especially the way you can vividly hear the confident anger and disappointment in her voice when she lands the “You won’t” at the end of the choruses.
Luckily, Chromatics don’t dwell in the doldrums for too long. CLOSER TO GREY is strongest when it’s sprinting, and “Twist the Knife” is a first-place finish. The track pairs two of the strongest synth lines in the band’s discography into a booming delight that stands among the best songs in their catalogue. “You’re No Good” has a similarly enthralling suite of synths and a hint of the signature shimmer that sets Chromatics apart from other synthpop outfits, but the rest of the record lacks the overpowering aesthetic that made NIGHT DRIVE and KILL FOR LOVE so easy to love. That’s not to say that CLOSER TO GREY is a run-of-the-mill synthpop record, because it’s certainly a cut above that benchmark, but there is an uncharacteristically empty feeling across the record that becomes more apparent with each listen. It’s a troubling turn, of course, but not one which Jewel and company are unequipped to course correct out of. What’s most confounding is that this is the collection of tracks that Jewel, the perfectionist that supposedly trashed every last copy of a record for being less than, chose to follow up KILL FOR LOVE. It’s possible CLOSER TO GREY is just meant to bridge the gap until DEAR TOMMY, but that only leaves us asking the same questions we’ve been asking for most of the past decade. We ought not to expect answers anytime soon.