Not long after delivering their 2012 magnum opus Kill for Love, the eternally enigmatic Chromatics announced its follow up, a monolithic and shadowy collection called Dear Tommy. Track listings and album art were shared as early as 2014 for Dear Tommy, which would be the band's fifth proper album, and their producer Johnny Jewel leaked songs online and discussed the album in interviews as if it were just around the corner. Fast forward to 2019, and Dear Tommy had yet to materialize when new full-length Closer to Grey arrived without notice in early October. Brandishing the Roman numerals VII on the cover art, Closer to Grey held strong in the assertion that it was the Chromatics' seventh album, even as the elusive Dear Tommy waited in some foggy limbo.
Despite its somewhat confusing place in the band's body of work, Closer to Grey manages to offer another great collection of the Chromatics' patented chilling atmospheres and cinematic pop, as well as some minor evolutions. Songs like "Twist the Knife" and the ominous title track work in the same stark nocturnal pop template as earlier albums, with singer Ruth Radelet's shadowy deadpan vocals meeting with layers of vintage synths and straightforward beats. Elsewhere, however, the Chromatics tentatively explore new territory. "Light as a Feather" builds on a looping sample of a drum break, as does the slinky, almost R&B mist of "Touch Red." The relatively upbeat "You're No Good" is more Europop than Italo disco horror soundtrack, Radelet's airy harmonies recalling Sade singing over a club-ready remix. In the past, the Chromatics have covered Kate Bush and Neil Young, transforming their songs by stripping them down to opaque skeletons. Closer to Grey begins with a similarly haunted rendition of Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence." Though creepy and minimal, the tune is more awkward than some of the band's more successful reworkings. They fare far better with a languorous eight-minute version of the Jesus and Mary Chain's fuzzy two-chord rocker "On the Wall," an easy album standout. Even seven years later, following a statement as expansive and detailed as Kill for Love would be difficult. Closer to Grey feels more like a loose assemblage of good-to-great tunes than it does a cohesive album, especially with the level of production perfectionism Johnny Jewel and company are known for. It's a curious piece of the never-ending Chromatics puzzle, and an excellent offering to tide fans over as they wait for the next piece to fall into place.