Hints of Habakkuk in Chvrches’ Love Is Dead
Love Is Dead, the jarring title of the third album from Scottish synth-pop trio Chvrches, is intentionally provocative. Singer Lauren Mayberry has said in interviews that the phrase is the beginning of a conversation: “In our minds, there’s a question mark or an ellipsis at the end of the title…The whole record isn’t completely depressing—it’s more about sitting with certain kinds of melancholy and wondering what you do about that. It’s about frustration, but figuring out a way to be able to feel like that and move on.”
What’s the source of this frustration? For Chvrches—and for the Hebrew prophet Habakkuk—it stems from looking around at the broken condition of present-day reality. As Mayberry laments in “Miracle,” “I feel like I'm falling but I'm trying to fly / Where does all the good go? / We're looking for answers in the highest of highs / But will we ever, ever know?”
The line “Where does all the good go?” has a striking resonance with Habakkuk’s opening words in his poetic complaint about the injustice he sees around him:
How long, Lord, must I call for help
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!"
but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
In both “Miracle” and Habakkuk’s complaint, the angst and anger at injustice build in tension and fervor. The rhythm and harmonies grow through the pre-chorus of the pop song: “And I need you to know, I'm not asking for a miracle / But if love is enough could, you let it show? / If you feel it could you let me know?”
Then, with unironic poetic perfection, the bass drops.
Love Is Dead is a breakup album transcending mere romantic loss. The paradoxical mashup of poppy earworm alt-electro melodies with haunting, cynical lyrics serves as a perfect soundtrack for a breakup with religious and political ideologies. While some songs may simply be about the aftermath of love lost (“Graffiti,” “My Enemy”), the overt religious connotations of song titles like “Heaven/Hell,” “God’s Plan,” and the aforementioned “Miracle” (to say nothing of the cross on the album’s cover) suggest something more than lovers’ malaise. The song “Deliverance” specifically targets hypocrisy in fundamentalist religion, pointing out the apparent disconnect between the theology and practices of its adherents: “Is it deliverance / If you hurt me in exchange?”
Love Is Dead is a breakup album transcending mere romantic loss.
The critique of religion goes further in “Never Say Die.” “Weren't you trying forgiveness and weren't you trying to stay? / Weren't you trying to look up and weren't you trying to pray?” interrogates Mayberry softly, before offering a damning critique. “All you want is to play at playing god / But I'm falling in, I'm falling out.” Even as she nearly whispers the indictments, the longing for something better bursts through as staccato synth beats punctuate her prayerful, repetitive refrain. As she observes political and religious leaders playing as monarchical demigods living high on self-created thrones, Mayberry (and Habakkuk) are fed up with such idolatry and abuses of power.
“Graves,” the most sobering song on Love Is Dead, describes “bodies in stairwells...washing up on the shore” as public leaders “can look away / while they’re dancing on our graves.” In an interview with Pitchfork, Mayberry describes the inspiration for “Graves”: “The main stimulus was seeing people with power choose to not reference things and never be held accountable because it’s not relevant to them.” This too parallels Habakkuk: “Why then do you [Lord] tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” The plea is clear: both God and God’s people must do something about all this injustice.
At the same time, Habakkuk and Mayberry must be patient. “And I'm holdin' on, I'm holdin' on / I'll wait until you're really gone / And try to find another way / But I cannot stay,” croons Mayberry on the ballad-like “Really Gone.” It’s this last line of resignation where Chvrches and Habakkuk diverge. Where Love Is Dead often remains stuck within a deconstructive critique of ideology, Habakkuk offers an alternative, reconstructive approach: “I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what [God] will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.” It’s a posture of proactive waiting, looking towards the horizon of the future with faithful hope despite the present-day reign of ideological injustice. This posture is neither passive nor churlish; Habakkuk channels his outrage positively, confronting both God’s apparent uninvolvement and the unjust practices of the surrounding culture.
Following his conversation with God (wouldn’t it be great to get a direct answer from the divine about the world’s problems?) Habakkuk is prompted to action. Like Chvrches, he writes a song. Following in that tradition, I suggest that art and ethics, beauty and justice, must go hand in hand. Habakkuk’s prayer-song is about all sorts of things—anger, wonder, confusion, patience, fear. Yet it ends with joy and a commitment to God as the source of justice:
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.
Faith, hope, and love dwell within the “yet” of this prayer. As God said earlier to Habakkuk, “the righteous person will live by faith.” Hundreds of years after Habakkuk’s waiting and watching, the apostle Paul saw his words as central to the gospel. God was and is not indifferent to injustice; his plan for dealing with it is just grander and more unexpected than we could ever imagine. The Son of God—the “righteous person”—was born into the context of the violent Roman empire to establish a reign of justice and peace, a reign that will never end. While Chvrches’ album suggests that “love is dead,” the Christian church may offer her own “yet.” Yes, love did die…yet he was raised again on the third day, inviting us to love others as he loved us.