It’s hard to overstate how influential Chromatics have been this decade. Their magnum opus, 2012’s Kill for Love, is responsible for more than just a fresh wave of 80s-influenced synthpop bands. Along with their work on the Drive soundtrack, the band ushered in a wave of backward-looking nostalgic art, from TV shows (Stranger Things) and films (It) to fashion and fonts. They may be far from a household name, but they’ve directly or indirectly shaped much of what has been en vogue for the last few years.
Band leader Johnny Jewel has been busy since Kill for Love. Fifth studio album Dear Tommy has been rumoured for release since 2014, now entering the stuff of legend after Jewel allegedly destroyed all copies of the record following a near-death experience, determined to improve the song-writing. In 2017 he and the band contributed songs and starred in season 3 of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.
Somewhere along the way they recorded Closer to Grey, announced a day before its release. Whether this is their canonical fifth album or that title still belongs to Dear Tommy – confirmed to still exist in some form and scheduled for an undetermined future date – is for fans to argue over.
It makes sense. Dear Tommy was burdened with following their cinematic masterpiece, yet in the process has come to acquire its own mystique and notoriety. Closer to Grey, almost half an hour shorter than Kill for Love and far more conventional, is a healthy expectations-managing stopgap.
They welcome listeners back with one of their now trademark covers, following on from Night Drive’s Running Up That Hill, Kill for Love’s Into the Black, and an EP of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun reinterpretations. This time it’s Simon & Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence, here sounding like a digital prayer, complete with synthetic organ and Ruth Radelet’s typically lullaby-like vocals. It’s subdued compared to Disturbed’s recent bombastic rendition, opening the album with a stripped-down lament about a world where no one communicates.
Closer to Grey doesn’t reinvent the wheel, The Sound of Silence acting as a tonally appropriate introduction for music best played in the middle of the night, as with all of Chromatics’ electronic albums. The title track’s beat sounds best in a dark room or on a night drive, about a breakup sucking the colour out of life. This constant forward march carries over to the next track where Radelet asks to be taught how to be cruel before twisting the knife, and how that’s alright.
The rhythm propels the narrative, lyrics synching up with goth-tinged keys which come together to form a kind of horror film. On Light as a Feather, the title is repeated as if a message from the dead, complete with a poltergeist flickering of lights. An ascending scale returns later in the album as Closer to Grey’s Love Theme, sounding not at all romantic, but disorientating and full of anguish.
What Chromatics have been up to in the latter half of the decade might only make sense with time. Touch Red sounds like a doomier version of Time Rider, released as a single earlier this year – a possible Dear Tommy track? With Closer to Grey, they never hit the lofty heights of Kill for Love, but that’s okay when what they have instead is a more concise narrative driven by hook-laden songs over moods and textures.
It’s another side to Chromatics, indulging in a more conventional interpretation of what it means to be cinematic, all the while proving that while they’re often imitated, there’s no other act who have managed to make a retro sound feel like something more than nostalgia. Jewel needs his songs dripping in Italo disco-influenced synth to paint with neon strokes, resulting in a neo-noir narrative that fits in 2019. In not attempting to recreate past glories, Closer to Grey is an artistic flush of competence, delivering something familiar in a new way, one which keeps them at the very top of the game.
Closer to Grey is out now, via Italians Do It Better.