“A man’s gotta have a code,” Omar Little once told us. It’s unclear if Johnny Jewel, co-founder of Italians Do It Better and ideas man behind the label’s tentpole artists (Chromatics, Glass Candy, Desire, Symmetry), is a fan of The Wire, but he bears this logic out. For the supposedly inscrutable Jewel, it’s a pretty easy code to decipher: B-movie chic and B-side cool; glistening apples, waxed to a sickly sheen; a pair of black drops below the eye; a colour scheme of near-exclusively red and blue, with an occasional reddy-blue overlap that arrives at purple. These are the building blocks of everything that extends from his filmic mind.
The Jewel-a-thon last Sunday was a dedication to the leading man’s exacting eye for detail, as well as an interesting step back in time both distant (the 1980s) and recent (the early 2010s). When Chromatics dropped Closer to Grey earlier this autumn, it was a surprise to fans who had patiently held out over seven years for a follow-up to cult gem Kill for Love. The album gave a fresh lick of paint to the sultry atmospherics the band are known for.
Strangely, they didn’t play a thing off it, nor hint toward the mythical opus Dear Tommy. Instead, the show at The Roundhouse interrogated the audience’s fondness for an era in recent memory, without sops to the present day. Multiple nods to the aesthetic and music of Drive, busts of Aristotle flying through space and Tron grids on the visuals as if the blogosphere was still in fine fettle, the relatively quaint simplicity of seeing a four-piece indie band sway through material on stage: it was as if time had been suspended since Chromatics played KOKO, just up the road, in June 2013.
Three-piece Desire were the main support, wrapping up with Under Your Spell, one of the mega-hits Jewel contributed to the Drive soundtrack. Romy from The xx was on the decks directly before Chromatics, mixing up tactile, emotional and period-specific 80s or 80s-esque tunes. Pet Shop Boys, OMD, Lauer, Q Lazzarus and two songs from Yazoo set the tone as panel lights arcing around the stage flashed movie posters both real and confected, as well as multiple ultra-stylish shots of the band themselves against mirrors, lights, futons and foliage. By the time Chromatics walked on and slid into 2007’s Tick of the Clock, the immersion was complete.
The pitfall of the myth-making around Jewel is that noir imagery and slow-burn synth-pop conveys intimacy, which does not always translate at scale. Live, Chromatics songs can be a little bloodless, Ruth Radelet’s voice a little strained and the consistent twinkle of vintage synths and chug of steady drums a little flat when it comes to building momentum. Moments where the group dialled up the intensity, unleashing torrents of strobes and noise, or adding extra oomph to fan favourites, like the vocodered These Streets Will Never Look the Same, were amongst the best.
Oddly, for a project so committed to exporting a precise vision of sound, Chromatics are at their best when donning the cloaks of another. The three covers that came in the final run – of Neil Young’s Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black), Bruce Springsteen’s I’m on Fire, and Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill – were all incredible. They cut to the heart of what Jewel is about: classiness and timelessness, high art that can stop you in your tracks. Walking out of the neon haze and back into the night to find that Camden’s streets did, in fact, look the same was disorientating and not a little disappointing. Say what you like about his reluctance to progress, but Jewel’s reputation as an immersive scene-setter remains unshakable.