- by Rob Taylor Release Date:2015-10-30 Label: Fire
In mid 2005, my wife and I went to a Go-Betweens concert at a nearby venue, The Heritage Hotel, the significance of which we couldn’t have known at the time. Grant McLennan died less than a year later, aged 48. Indie maestros, Robert Forster and McLennan had become the éminence gris of the Australian indie-pop scene, having to prove little but still performing at such a dazzling standard. Sadly, their period of playing live and recording came to a close, even though they might have reached even loftier standards together in collaboration.
Martin Phillipps and The Chills, from Dunedin in New Zealand, are similarly well known away from the antipodes by those with sophisticated pop tastes, and old enough to remember all the way back to the Flying Nun days, and like Forster and McLennan, Phillipps is an outstanding writer of indie-pop.
Happy days. The Chills have released their first album in 20 years, their first release of fresh material since 2004’s Stand By EP. The prognosis may not have been positive, with Phillipps fighting many demons over the years, from drug and alcohol excess and depression, to some unfortunate misadventure bringing changes to the band’s line-up.
Silver Bullets is, in spite of all the tribulations, a sublime effort. Not only a sublime effort, but the irresistible conclusion I drew from Silver Bullets was that the sum total of Martin Phillipps’ musical and personal experiences over his long career appear to have crystallised into the ultimate artistic representation of his talent. A beautiful and hopefully long epilogue to the fractured career of a pop genius.
Anyone interested in buying Silver Bullets can be assured it is everything that made Martin Phillipps’ and the The Chills a premier and indisputably timeless act, at least in the microcosm of life I inhabit.
The theme of Silver Bullets is financial, ecological and personal waste, with personal metaphors laid on thick but never too literal. It also has a redemptive message of love, one I assume is close to Phillips’ heart, as he struggled with himself and his music over the years.
Warm synths and a ‘fathers of time’ chorus acts as a preamble to the album proper, church bells ringing out with a self-deprecating touch. The Chills are back in reinvigorated form and lest we forget that even these fathers of time can still take it to the modern indie scene. ‘Warm Waveform’ is a song about transformation, and the power of stable influences to set you back on the right path... “It’s amazing you stay here/a safe port in a strong storm/For my soul seemed wrong/too cold and so worn/but bathed in warm waves, you broke my night with your dawn/cuddled up so close and so warm”
Silver Bullets hits its straps with 'Underwater Wasterland', a triumph of longform pop which manages to incorporate many songwriting and musical ideas, more than many indie-pop bands can muster on a whole LP. There’s the usual unblemished melodies for sure, but there’s also psychedelic guitar, reminiscences of celtic folk affirming Dunedin’s Scots heritage, and a grungy downbeat which sticks it to the movement that brought about their departure from the scene in the early 1990s. Lyrically, it’s about the plundering of the ocean leading to waste, or the plundering of emotional resources leading to personal desolation. Your choice.
Single, 'America Says Hello', probably the best track amongst some real crackers, establishes itself as an excellent pop song, before taking it to a new level with an exciting change of tempo at 1:45. A minute later an interlude like one of Springsteen’s candlelight travelogues reintroduces the central theme again, and the band is given space to explore the exquisite melody as the track leads out five minutes later, never exhausting its welcome.
A bit of cheeky surf guitar kiwi style on ‘Liquid Situation’ takes us to Part 2 of this compelling drama.
The thumping drums and bass guitar at the intro of ‘Pyramid..’ recalls early Simple Minds but this is quickly invalidated. What’s interesting about this track is the dark themes introduced mid-track. The music spirals and swirls, strings play dolefully, guitars whine atonally before brighter pop themes emerge. A magnificent tour de force of song within song, and another smashing highlight.
If you’re not positively glowing from the indie masterclass by this stage, you’ve still got four tracks of indie scrumptiousness to carry you through. Thanks to Martin Phillipps for the positive message of ‘Tomboy’....“Its not a small thing/for her it’s a haunting recollection of that schoolyard taunting/for a girl who wasn’t weak/ and I bet her blood was boiling / spoiling for a fight / we called her a tomboy / though we knew it wasn’t right …...such a strange name for just a strong girl”. My ten year old daughter loved this song and its lyrics. A small feat amongst a much larger one.
Which is, The Chills producing their best album ever after such a long period away from the scene.