review: Chromatics’ ‘Closer to Grey’ finds haunting beauty in moving on
Sometimes it's better just to move on. Chromatics' Johnny Jewel was apparently all set to release Dear Tommy, the group's follow-up to 2012's Kill for Love, back in 2015 but, the story goes, he instead destroyed the initial CD/LP pressing of the album in early 2016 after a near-death experience. Jewel has since spent a lot of time trying to make the songs better, with release date after release date blown (most recently fall 2018). Unlike other endless tinkerers (Kevin Shields), though, Chromatics have steadily shared songs and done other work. They hadn't disappeared from view. It was almost a relief when they surprise announced that they'd release a new album this week, and that it wasn't Dear Tommy.
Closer to Grey shows that Jewel's issue with Dear Tommy is not writer's block, and that he is, along with singer Ruth Radelet, still a master of mood. Few nail eerie nostalgia quite like Chromatics and they've done it again here with 12 songs that also find them gently pushing their distinctive sound in new directions. In other ways it's a distinct nod to their past, opening -- just like Kill for Love -- with a cover of a folky '60s song, in this case Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence." (It was Neil Young's "Hey Hey, My My [Into the Black]" last time.) Chromatics put a little more silence in it, with Radelet's double-tracked (but harmony-free) voice being the main instrument for most of the song, with only the lightest spectral synths floating well below her, and kickdrums that threaten to turn the song into a dancefloor number, but never do.
"Sound of Silence" leads into the album's first single, "You're No Good," a jazzy disco number that is among the most upbeat songs Chromatics have ever released and is a real testament to both Radelet's voice and Jewell's production skills. When little melodic percussion sounds -- a la Michael Jackson's "Rock With You" -- tick away, mixing with the synths, handclaps, guitar and harmonies, it's ecstatic bliss. Equally good, if more typically neon ice Chromatics-y in style are "Twist the Knife," and the Closer to Grey's title track (which has been around for a while), which pull gothy post-punk guitars into their sleek sound.
Chromatics have always incorporated '70s soundtrack textures into what they do, and maybe it's just the album art, clearly nodding to Italian horror, but it feels especially pronounced this time. "Light as a Feather," with lines like "she whispers secrets from the dead," takes a spooky hook Morricone might have played on a harpsichord, and pulls it into now with a shuffling beat and electro-dub production. "Touch Red" has similar baroque bones, but in a slow-jam arrangement that recalls both Art of Noise's "Moments in Love" and Lionel Richie's "Hello," but sounds only like a Chromatics song. They go full Italo-horror on "Theme from Closer to Grey" which surely some filmmaker will use sooner than later.
One of the most striking songs on Closer to Grey is their cover of The Jesus & Mary Chain's "On the Wall" (from 1985's Darklands), which is reverent but not rote, and Chromatics pull into the astral plane, dropping the fuzzed-out guitars midway through and sailing instead of psychedelic mellotron flute orchestrations. Those flutes show up again on "Move a Mountain," which hits that sad/beautiful sweet spot that they are good at bullsyeing, with Radelet singing "I tried to move a mountain / I'm waiting for it to fall / I'm staring out the window / Waiting for you to call / You won't."
Will we ever get Dear Tommy? Who knows, but finding out doesn't seem so crucial now.
Chromatics just shared the video for "You're No Good," which Jewell directed and keeps those Italian horror vibes going: