There’s a good reason “Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)” is the final track on Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps: From the desolate title to the staggering outro guitar work to the vacant air of end-of-an-era doomsaying, it’s the kind of song that sucks the air out of the room. It’s such an iconic finale that Kurt Cobain, the architect of perhaps the most elaborately constructed death in rock history, used it to add a stamp of authenticity to his suicide note.
In this context, Chromatics’ choice to open Kill for Love with a cover of the song seems like a band immediately shooting itself in the foot. But it quickly becomes clear that such a self-destructive gesture might be intentional. The band’s version strips the track down to its famous central riff, removing the layers of staggered fuzz of Young’s original. The guitar is dropped into a deep, echoey void, accompanied only by Ruth Radelet’s lonely voice. The song remains bare nearly until the end, when electronics and canned strings worm their way into the mix, and the effect is of watching something dead stay dead, even as stuff begins wriggling around in its corpse. The electronic beat that emerges seems to rhyme audibly with the beep of a heart monitor, turning into a steady pulse that grows clearer and clearer.
As the opener segues into the title track, that sense of growth continues, with the pulse expanding into a scintillating pattern, establishing the tools that the remainder of the album will employ: rudimentary drum-machine throbs, cool synth washes, reverbed vocals, and gauzy shoegaze distortion that crashes over the music like waves. Chromatics’ music is imbued with the deathly pallor of the Cure and the transient textures of the Jesus and Mary Chain, bands that get explicitly referenced amid the sprawl of “Kill for Love.” Their influence, and that of others from the same period, shows up heavily across the album’s 17 tracks, on long, repetitive songs that seem constructed entirely from old parts, giving that material a Frankensteinian quality.
Couched in this kind of peak-‘80s fantasy land, Kill for Love has been labeled the unofficial soundtrack to Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive, befitting its surface similarities to the film’s lovingly revisionist take on period dream-pop. (Chromatics mastermind Johnny Jewel was actually initially hired to score the film before the studio rejected his work.) The albums’ styles do compare, but the tone on Kill for Love‘s tone is completely different, because while the Drive soundtrack was about the celebration of nostalgia, full of blissful paeans to victory and heroism, the anthems here feel seedy and washed out.
This sound, and the bravura choice of starting off with one of music’s most recognizable closing tracks, establishes Kill for Love as a comedown album, innately concerned with the repetitive fruitlessness of nostalgia. This is pinpointed on long tracks like “Lady,” which isolates a single statement of longing, then turns it into an endlessly repeated mantra that never progresses, developing a yearning that never finds resolution. The gender confusion behind Radelet’s refrain only deepens the sense of futility: “If I could only be your man.” The looping structures that undergird these songs aren’t engines of self-sustaining dynamism like they are in the dance music that inspired much of the album; they’re indicators of exhaustion and discontent.
It seems fitting to point out that Chromatics started out as a punky rock band that burned out, transformed, and ended up here, in the burned-out shell of some shuttered dance club. Kill for Love progresses in an almost fungal cycle: using rot as the fuel for the band’s jaded cynicism, layering on luminous textures to heighten the ironic power of that cynicism. This means that despite Chromatics’ predilection for thudding beats and glittering synths, the songs here are anything but flashy, and the album’s fixations on love and death, disappointment and defeat, make the artificiality come off as atrophied and frozen. This grants a perversely exciting quality to these familiar elements when they could have easily just sounded moldy. This thematic angle may seem like an excuse for an album that’s too long, too familiar, and too musically inert, but appreciated in the context of its ideas, Kill for Love is a great tribute to the grueling power of fatigue, an album that turns a dearth of ideas into a virtue.