Begin To Look Around (EMI)
Screen Violence (Liberator)
Empowerment is a word tantalisingly available but also frustratingly vague. Is it giving strength and ability to change, or is about the illusion of control as a precursor to change or, more likely, disappointment? Is it agency or trust? Possibly, it is as basic as the ability to choose between hope and gloom, or to recognise the choice was never yours.
Maybe, it is knowledge.
These two albums, from the Glasgow trio, Chvrches, and Melbourne’s Gretta Ray – their fourth in eight years; her first, six years after her breakthrough EP – are about knowledge. That is, they’re about coming to some understanding from experience, and from there, judging whether to put faith in others, or not.
For Chvrches’ Lauren Mayberry, it’s doubtful; for Ray, it’s hopeful. And neither feel wrong, which is interesting. In both cases, the calls are made from position of strength: whether it is sceptical or trusting, there’s always a sense of this decision being earned.
In the somewhat claustrophobic dream pop of He Said She Said - with synths replacing the bulk of dream pop’s usual guitar avalanche - Mayberry presents the kind of comment dressed as advice she (and quite likely Ray) would consider par for the course as pop song writers and as women. “He said ‘it’s all in your head/But keep an ear to the grapevine’/And ‘get drunk, but don’t be a mess’ … “He said ‘you need to be fed/But keep an eye on your waistline’/And ‘look good but don’t be assessed’.”
The response isn’t some witty comeback or smart smack down, but rather what she has described as a scream into the void, as she repeats over and over in the chorus, “I feel like I’m losing my mind”. That’s not out of weakened grip on reality, but the effort required to keep pushing against this tide.
By the song’s end that claustrophobia feels heavier, lasting. So much so that it is never entirely shaken off in the next song, California, where the drums work as the anchor for the upward-falling guitars, and the message of the melody is in constant tug with the message of the lyrics. Here, in a song at first seemingly about misdirection in love, the promise of change and success and personal growth built into the mythology as much as the DNA of this state, begins to feel a rebuttal.
“No one ever tells ya/There’s freedom in the failure,” Maybury says. “Dying in a dream feels like home/No one ever seems to say, say so.” She’s not rejecting the idea of Los Angeles; she’s rejecting the idea that that idea is the sole arbiter of healthy success. Indeed, it may be the factor that accelerates or exaggerates failure, and progress can only happen elsewhere.
For Ray, the idea of that progression is flagged immediately with the opening track, Becoming. However, the ambiguity in that title (becoming what? Going from what?) is left open as the song is an instrumental, essentially a 30-second rising swell that drops immediately into the dragging-beat, keyboard-deep Bigger Than Me.
Here in a buoyantly spry song at first seemingly about dislocation (possibly in a city like LA) – “My house is a hotel room in the inner city of a place I don’t know well/But I’m shown the ropes, to try to tame the vertigo” – it is the promise of a heady new love that removes certainties. Except this love is not a person but the thrill of artistic creation.
“This love hit without a warning/Took control and it has dawned on me that it’s all I need/This is bigger than me,” Ray sings, having pre-empted this chorus with lines that may as well have come from the dream factory city: “When you think like you dream/Nothing is an impossibility/Tend to the beast I feed.”
Maybe it’s being one proper album in, maybe it’s being treated better, but Ray still believes in not just inspiration but the ability to fulfil it, and find the pleasure in it.
In Chvrches’ Final Girl, a song which in some ways is almost as Cure-like as its predecessor, How Not To Drown (which trumps all by actually having Mr Cure, Robert Smith, singing on it), the lightly chilled melody finds its counterweight in the glistening guitars of the chorus. However, the metaphor of the last woman standing in a horror film comes without a positive counter as it stands in for the progressive stripping away of someone in an industry (or relationship) set on homogeneity more than individuality.
“And I wonder if I should have changed my accent/Tried to make myself more attractive/Only time will tell,” we hear, before the inevitable play out that forestalls a rescue, “In the final scene/There’s a final girl/And you know that she should be screaming now.”
The fight back, the refusal to succumb, comes in the next song, the partly ironically titled Good Girls. Over a mid-80s Brat Pack movie-ready mix of hard snap drums/two finger keyboard, Mayberry brings a Madonna minimal melody to bear on lyrics about not just cutting down idols and life-lecturers but what it takes not to care.
“Good girls don’t cry/And good girls don’t lie/And good girls justify/But I don’t,” she says. And if the connection to Final Girl isn’t already clear, the chorus plays out with “Good girls don’t die/And good girl stay alive/And good girls satisfy/But I won’t.”
And sometimes good and not-so-good girls don’t need you. In The Cure (which is not about Smith’s band), a track that begins as voice and piano but expands without overplaying its hand into a quietly grand pop song, Ray wanders around London in the after-days of a broken love. It isn’t bitter, but it isn’t fine, and “My head and heart both have their wires crossed”, so that she sees his face in crowds and “I’m missing you like mad”.
But the city awakens in her a readiness to begin to move on even if she isn’t sure how (“I awake each day to feel the weight of the change/Heavy on my chest, and try to embrace it”) and she starts to recognise that love is ruthless, its aftermath ugly, but “There’s growth in falling apart, there’s laughter between the darker moments”.
Best of all, she’s fine doing this alone, telling the ex that “Maybe I’m okay without your advice/Guess that our old ways are no longer right” because she’s decided to “Let brilliance override and agony subside”.
That this feels more than mouthing the right words, that Ray’s relaxed, comfortably warm voice strikes the right balance between the bruise in the recovery becomes evident not in this song, but in the track immediately following.
In Readymade, Ray is post-recovery and post-alone. So much so that she is fully immersed in the possibility of new love and not just offering herself but opening herself to confessing a need. Here she is asking this putative lover to “Greet me at the door/Saying you will be my safest place to fall … Know that you’re all that I need/When I’m down and out, when bruised or bleeding”.
Rather than sound a bit desperate, a bit hope-over-sense, this is a character who feels like she is coming from a position of certainty – not about the relationship necessarily, but about her ability to work in it and be herself in it. “You won’t begin to fill me fade/Rest assured this love was ready-made.”
No more and no less reasonable than Mayberry’s sharp appraisal or assumption of falseness across Screen Violence that arises from experience, Ray’s resolution to search and to trust in Begin To Look Around has a foundation in knowledge, of self and of where she might fit.
Each album, as different in sound as they are in philosophy, feels similarly empowered.