Johnny Jewel’s first impressions of disco music came from soundtracks: nightclub scenes on episodes of The Love Boat and Fantasy Island he watched in the evenings with his parents as a kid in Houston.
“I remember… the string sections, really ethereal vocals, especially the female vocals. I was really swept away. To me, the vocals in disco music sound like this surreal afterlife, a purgatory,” he recalled in a 2008 interview.
That image of disco as the sonic backdrop to a dreamy, cinematic afterlife looms large in Jewel’s creative subconscious. His minimal, retro-futurist productions for the Italians Do It Better label (with Glass Candy, Desire, Symmetry, and lately, Chromatics) seem, in the same way that old movies and TV do, distant, mirage-like — out of time and slightly out of focus.
The warm sounds of Jewel’s vintage analog gear convey a certain degree of youthful wistfulness, but particular period references underpinning his sound (Italo-disco, Depeche Mode, John Carpenter soundtracks) show an affinity for the dark side of the retro dance-pop spectrum. The result is a sort of postmodern Gothic, blending horror and romance to mourn the fate of a fallen world held hostage by video sirens and ghosts in the machine. The shimmering, arpeggiated textures and soft, propulsive beats of the music are syncronized not to the movement of bodies on the dancefloor but to the lonelier rhythms of modern life: windshield wipers on a late-night drive, blinking LCD displays, the tick of a clock in an empty room marking the inexorable passage of time.
Time is Kill for Love’s main preoccupation: Our heroine, voiced by Chromatics’ Ruth Radelet, a character referred to in the liner notes simply as “Lady,” seems to be somehow stuck — or unstuck — in time. She’s a tragic figure, metaphorically or metaphysically suspended in some kind of otherworldly purgatory. Like a postmodern Eurydice trapped in Hades, waiting for her Orpheus to play sad synths until the gods weep.
“Everyone is slipping backwards,” she sings the title track’s haunting chorus. Lady’s on the run from her own mortality out of — or into — the afterlife, hoping to find “a broken kind of paradise / where time would stand still.” (“Birds of Paradise”)
Jewel joined Chromatics circa 2007 in one of several shakeups in the band’s lineup, during which guitarist Adam Miller has remained the only consistent member. Jewel’s entry marked an unexpected change in direction for the group, from dissonant No Wave to glassy, synth-driven and decidedly Jewel-toned sound.
Night Drive, Chromatics’ first album with Jewel as a full-fledged member, was creatively packaged as an ersatz “Original Motion Picture Soundtrack.” The album captured the imagination of director Nicholas Winding Refn, who commissioned Jewel to compose a score for his 2011 film Drive. While Jewel’s score was eventually rejected by the studio, he reworked and released the material this January as Symmetry: Themes from an Imaginary Film.
Jewel’s brush with the real-life silver screen seems to have deepened and enriched his fascination with cinema. Kill For Love carries on the “imaginary film” conceit, possibly functioning as Night Drive’s sequel of sorts.
The album opens with “Into the Black,” an unlikely but appropriate cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My.” Given the album’s filmic structure, it’s helpful to think of it as a theme song, establishing Kill for Love’s main ideas: loss, memory, mortality, alienation and self-destruction.
Half-seriously billed as “the existential thrill ride of the new millennium,” the story of Kill for Love’s imaginary film is grand but elusive, conveyed through oblique images and larger-than-life archetypes: pills and bottles, flashing screens, dark streets, white rooms, a foreboding “River.” The titular track suggests the plot may revolve around some kind of murder-suicide, but the particulars are left to the imagination. The recurring motif of the mysterious voicemail message suggests a narrative link between Kill for Love and Night Drive: Perhaps Lady’s night drive took her down the proverbial lost highway. Or maybe, on a meta-level, the “film” itself has trapped her in the unreality of its eternal reruns. “Time is stretching on,” Radelet sings, “It keeps on repeating as the beat goes on.” (“At Your Door”)
By now, I’ve spent far more time thinking about Kill for Love than I have actually listening to it. There’s a lot to read into, if you’re thus inclined, but comparatively little to actually read.
The trouble with Kill for Love is that its temporal indulgences often get the better of it. While sonically finessed, it also feels, in a larger sense, incomplete. Nearly five years in the making, the album’s final tracklist was culled down from a much larger body of material. Still, more than a third of its cinematic, 90-minute runtime is given over to ponderous ambient and instrumental interludes, slow fades and dramatic lapses into silence — again, fitting given the filmic conceit, but in a pop context they’re virtually impossible to keep in focus.
Elsewhere in the afore-cited 2008 interview, Jewel describes disco as seeming “like wallpaper, in the best way.” That’s ultimately how I feel about Kill for Love. It’s intricate but flat, a backdrop to the real action. I didn’t watch much TV as a kid, but I did love looking at wallpaper, interpreting patterns in the same way some people interpret constellations. Stare at the walls too long, though, and you suspect you’ve let your imagination get the better of you.
Kill for Love’s tapestry of references — both pop and mythic — are powerfully evocative. In the end, though, Jewel and company are better set designers than they are storytellers. Lacking a clear story arc or point of catharsis, Kill for Love drifts off into its own gorgeous gloom. It’s a fascinating place to visit and puzzle over, but hard to stay there for long without turning back to the world of the living.
By Rachel Smith