Johnny Jewel’s music is imbued with an eldritch air of nostalgia, the coupling of retro synth-pop and filmic ambiance bringing to mind images of a late night drive along a caliginous road; his production gleams like a rain-slick street, and the recalcitrant synth lines and guitar riffs buzz like an old neon sign adorning the front of some seedy deli in the grime of early ‘80s New York. Closer to Grey, which is being billed as Chromatics’ seventh album (so maybe the long-gestating Dear Tommy will one day get a release?), initially seems less ambitious (one might even say less grandiose) than the 75-minute Kill for Love, but Jewel’s glamorous and cryptic instrumentation and Ruth Radelet’s mesmeric intonations, serene and somnolent and almost lascivious in their languor, remain as hypnotic as a half-forgotten dream. Every note is precise and polished without feeling airless.
The funereal mood of “ Sound of Silence” gives way to the joyful, lusty “You’re No Good,” as finely crafted a piece of libidinous pop as Jewel has ever written, while the title track and “Twist the Knife” chug along with thrumming percussion and fuzzed-out synths.
As with Kill for Love, Closer to Grey opens with a cover, a sparse, woebegone version of “Sound of Silence,” which is an unusually obvious choice, yet the familiarity of the song is somehow comforting. Closer to Grey is a shimmering, sinuous album, unwavering in its style yet tonally eclectic. The funereal mood of “ Sound of Silence” gives way to the joyful, lusty “You’re No Good,” as finely crafted a piece of libidinous pop as Jewel has ever written, while the title track and “Twist the Knife” chug along with thrumming percussion and fuzzed-out synths. “Light as a Feather” forgoes Jewel’s usual drum programming, instead riding a groove of sampled breaks and a strident synth loop. It opens with haunting, repetitive notes slowly rising as Radelet coos about flickering street lights and “secrets from the dead” before segueing into “Move a Mountain,” the closest to soft-rock that Jewel has ever come, a percussion-less song permeated by a delicate and sentimental air. “I tried to build a castle, but I think it’s made of sand / I’m flying around in circles, looking for a place to land / But I won’t.” “Touch Red” culminates with a sordid guitar solo, lacerating yet leisurely, each note doused in reverb and distortion, rhythmic and desperate. The centerpiece of the album is a cover of Jesus and Mary Chain’s “On the Wall,” here sustained for over eight minutes and suffused with a sense of Sisyphean longing. The squalid guitars of JAMC’s original are replaced here with dreamy mellotron flutes, and Radelet repeats the refrain “On the wall” like a mantra. The next song, “Love Theme From Closer to Gray,” is redolent of giallo instrumentation, eerie and lush, with elegiac electronics and a brume of vocal sighs. The album ends on a note of dreamy hope with “Wishing Well,” as Radelet coos, “Tomorrow will start over when today says goodnight / Morning will forget about the ghosts of last night.” The song, a brief catchy number, is suffused with the same sense of nostalgia, with production glazed like lovestruck eyes, as any of the more atmospheric tracks that Jewel has produced, undulating smoothly and sensually, its haunting qualities slowly coursing toward jouissance. Greg Cwik