Deep within the fabric of the lush material in ‘Scatterbrain’, the new album from New Zealand legends The Chills, is an indelible and poignant thread that binds the album together – wry observations on the temporality of life and the transience of existence; delivered with a poetic simplicity and compassion. It is no wonder such a theme pervades this sparkling album given the tumultuous life of The Chills’ songwriter Martin Phillips and his many challenges over the years – so brilliantly depicted in the film ‘The Chills: the Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps’ (see my review).
It may be a stretch, but throughout the album, various stages of human experience though grief seem ever present – the so-called seven stages of grief (shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression, an upward turn, reconstruction and working through and finally acceptance and hope), but not necessarily in order.
Opening track ‘Monolith’ begins the album with a philosophical bent.
It has that indefinable sparkle that can be detected in the eye of Phillipps – a certain irrepressible glint, a hint of cheekiness mixed in with a naive tone and a razor-sharp melodic strength. There is a mystical astral theme to the lyrics – Phillips has always been the master of opaque imagery that is both knowing and naive at the same time. The accompanying video is suitably trippy and psychedelic as Phillipps lauds the powers of mysterious stones – utterly delightful and wholly enigmatic. As Phillipps says,
There are hard but important truths in our history. I know that it’s often said that you learn from those lessons or you’ll end up repeating the mistakes. So one should respect and consider the ancient ways. You belittle them at your peril.
The album then shifts to darker themes.
In ‘Hourglass’, Phillipps sings dark times, nothing left to say, black holes draining all the light away over sparse acoustic guitars and a distant wail of strings. He asks do the grains fall though the hourglass and responds: only when you’re counting. Herein lies the beautiful tensions within the work of The Chills: heart-aching observations delivered with a scintilla of optimism and a gumboot full of warmth. The music is filled with the brightest, catchiest of little riffs forming a contrapuntal emotional beat to the vocals.
In ‘Destiny’, Phillipps ponders the great unknown and the need for personal responsibility – destiny, set me free and I’ll set my own controls – a Shakespearian nod to the concept that we are as flies to wanton gods in terms of fate. And as victims of the tragedies of life, Phillipps’s elegant and raw poetry is never more evident than the stark emotions in ‘Caught In My Eye’: an elegy for a departed friend and a failed and heart breaking attempt at stoicism – I won’t cry, there must be something caught in my eye.
‘You’re Immortal’ moves to a more optimistic future, with an element of caution. It has that baroque pop elegance full of pomp and circumstance that the The Chills have perfected over the years – sweet, indie pop draped in a cloak of orchestral brilliance that sparkles and glows.
Phillipps says of the track:
These are unprecedented times but, as usual, the young feel invulnerable and the elders are concerned. The old people (like me) want to feel more involved but they also know that their time of influence has largely passed.
So we learn from the young and admire them as they make their own mistakes yet still, hopefully, shape extraordinary history we could not have imagined.
The song is bold – with an almost Ennio Morricone instrumental vibrancy and a sixties swing – with Phillipps wry and dry lyrics and stabs of celestial strings.
The upbeat nature of the album continues with ‘Little Alien’ with a more surreal and playful turn as Phillipps speaks to a lost and lonely extraterrestrial exhorting it to battle on over a lush, cinematic, rolling instrumentation. ‘Safe And Sound’ is another gorgeous celebration of cocooning: bright and endearing and yet a thread of anxiety rejecting the outside world cannot help but seep though the bones of the song.
It goes without saying ‘World Within Worlds’ is another shining pop song that fizzes and pops as it canters along. Is there brass? Oh yes, there is in fact an added lustre to this shining jewel. ‘World Within World’ is up there with The Chills’ past glories and in particular the monumental chiming pop tune ‘Heavenly Pop Hit’. Pure pop heaven delivered in the archetypal shimmering manner this band has perfected. Let’s face it, this is the band in the indie pop milieu that all others are compared to and aspire to.
Title track ‘Scatterbrain’ is from a rougher hewn cloth: scratchy percussion and an ominous undercurrent in tone and lyrics and the first sign of malevolence and impatience directed at a protagonist. Does this represent a stage of anger? If it does, then final track, ‘Walls of Abandon’ seems to imply a degree of acceptance of the secular, finite nature of life: I don’t care how brave you are, no-one scales the walls beyond abandon, I don’t care how bright you are, no-one scales the walls beyond abandon.
For all the inherent tragedy, loss and heartbreak, there is nothing maudlin in the lyrics but rather beautifully expressed, if not resigned, emotions. Coupled with the brilliance of light emanating from the music, it makes for a magnificent and enveloping cloth.
‘Scatterbrain’ is a stupendous, deep and rich album filled with love, loss and compassion, delivered on a bed of lush instrumentation, scaling riffs and melodies. The Chills continue to deliver multilayered masterpieces from the cold deep south of the world that serves to warm and brighten the universe.
Feature Photograph: Alex Lovell-Smith