Jeff Zentner’s debut novel, The Serpent King (Crown/Random House), releases in March 2016. Prior to becoming an author, he was a singer-songwriter and guitarist who recorded with Iggy Pop, Nick Cave, Thurston Moore, Mark Lanegan, Lydia Lunch and Debbie Harry, among others. In addition to writing and recording, Zentner works with young musicians at Tennessee Teen Rock Camp. He lives in Nashville. You can follow him on Twitter here.
There is a notion — wrongheaded and shit-headed in equal measure — that the “authenticity” of music (whatever that may mean) is inversely proportional to the level of technology employed in its making. To wit: making music on a MacBook Pro = inauthentic. Playing an acoustic guitar = authentic.
Authenticity is on my mind with Chvrches’ staggeringly good second album, Every Open Eye. This record walked through an open door in me and set up residence in my heart. How Chvrches opened that door — or, rather, reopened it — is the story I’m about to tell.
In 1990, I liked whatever was on that forbidden fruit, MTV. I was raised the oldest child in a strict Christian home where MTV was off-limits, so I would wait until my parents left to run errands and I’d sit close to the TV, one ear listening to the music while the other ear listened for the sound of the garage door. Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” was one of my favorites. With the song’s brooding loneliness and haunting power, Depeche Mode’s synthesized sounds opened a door and awoke something profound in me.
And then I discovered the blues on my scratchy pocket radio, and another new door opened. I began to teach myself guitar. This was my baptism into the dark cult of Musical Authenticity, a religion as fundamentalist and conservative as any. One of its inviolable tenets, as I saw it, was that all music not created by human fingers on wood and wire — or by the unadorned human voice — was anathema. And so a door closed in me — and it remained shut for a long time, almost two decades. I was decidedly free from the sin of listening to electronic music.
In 2013, however, some friends were talking about this band from Scotland called Chvrches. A co-worker gave me a burned CD of The Bones of What You Believe. And I listened.
I heard a familiar yearning, a familiar brooding and a familiar power. Something long dormant awoke in me and immediately I experienced a familiar transgressive thrill too. I almost started anticipating a scolding. But that imaginary lecture wouldn’t come from my parents, eager to tell me about the evils of rock music as they did so many times in the past — it would come from me, eager to cry “Judas!” at myself for betraying the cult of Musical Authenticity. But then I realized that I actually didn’t have to do that. I could luxuriate without guilt in Chvrches’ lush, pulsing, intricate rhythms and ferociously intelligent and lovelorn lyrics. You can give yourself permission to find great songwriting in music that doesn’t involve a guitar. Songwriting like that exists. Chvrches is proof.
And so I had found my new favorite band. A long-closed door had opened again.
I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited for an album than I was for Every Open Eye. It’s difficult to write about why I love the music I love, often because it’s not necessarily describable. Plus, through my own dumb fault, I particularly lack the vocabulary to talk about electronic music (“I really like the boop-beep part that comes after the bonk bonk bonk bink bink bink part”). I just know that Every Open Eye resonates with me. I know that it makes me feel more alive. It makes me remember wonderful things that never happened. It lets me inoculate myself against loss and things falling apart, by watching these things happen from a safe distance.
Every Open Eye is everything I loved about The Bones of What You Believe, but executed with even more assurance and experience. Lines such as “We are made of our longest days/We are falling but not alone” (from “Make Them Gold”) and “If I give more than enough ground will you claim it?/I will take it all in one breath and hold it down” (from “Playing Dead”) fall like volleys of arrows. There’s the same relative distribution of lyrical gut-punches here as on any Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen, Lucinda Williams or (insert paragon of authenticity here) album — but with no acoustic guitars.
Sonically, nearly every song on the album sounds anthemic and triumphant, with massive hooks and soaring choruses. Chvrches sounds like a band that knows exactly how good it is and isn’t about to waste anyone’s time with false modesty and retiring shyness. I believe “arena-ready” is the descriptor du jour for this sort of thing. There’s no less of the dark romanticism that prevailed on The Bones of What You Believe, it’s just that goths need jogging music too. (Ask Robert Smith.)
Here’s the thing: an acoustic guitar is no less a machine and an artificial way of conveying emotion than a Korg synth. Any distinction is arbitrary. Even lyrics are an imperfect (almost by design) way of conveying emotion, relying as they do on metaphor and abstract imagery. Sorrow, loneliness, love and yearning — all the things that I most love to hear in music — don’t actually sound more like an acoustic guitar than they sound like synthesizers and drum machines. It took me some time to get my head around this idea, but having done so, few artists evoke those emotions in me as skillfully as Chvrches.
Chvrches opened my eyes to a wondrous world of great art. I now interrogate every aesthetic and artistic impulse I have for signs that I’m rejecting some potentially great work — music, film, TV, whatever — out of some misguided contrarian or conservative impulse toward “authenticity.” All the doors are open — and so are my eyes.