In defence of Silverchair

Of all the bands I’ve known and loved, I have never had to defend my affinities as I have for Silverchair. I enjoy and respect their music too much to dismiss them as a guilty pleasure, and so I find myself having to explain what I see in this Australian band. Allow me now the space to fully articulate my view on the most underrated band I can think of.

As most people my age can recall, Silverchair burst onto the pop-grunge scene in 1995 when they won a demo competition that enabled the release of their first album Frogstomp. The 3-piece band of Daniel Johns, Chris Joannau and Ben Gillies (same lineup today, FYI) were 15 years old. The album was gritty yet poppy enough for substantial airplay on North American music channels. As an added bonus, the Australian lads were grungy but clean-cut enough to appear on many teen magazine covers. Teenage girls swooned, but the album was largely criticized for its similarity to other popular grunge bands at the time, and thus Frogstomp remained limited to adolescent 90’s CD collections.

Their sophomore album Freak Show was released in 1997 and received more serious critical reception for their emerging unique style. While considerably darker and angrier than their debut, Freak Show was highly anticipated by Frogstomp fans and Silverchair saw several singles climb the charts worldwide.

Here I must pause in my brief history of Silverchair. I must note that while Frogstomp and Freak Show are seminal to Silverchair’s development, they are not exemplary albums. Indeed, superfan that I am, I do not own the albums. I do not have them on my iPod. In fact, I was completely uninterested in their greatest hits album (which was released by Sony without the band’s consent) because I felt that it contained too many of their more mediocre tracks. In my opinion, Silverchair didn’t hit their stride until the release of Neon Ballroom in 1999.

Considerably darker than either of the first two albums, Neon Ballroom revealed an ominous turn for the band, with longer tracks that incorporated more complex melodies with classical instruments. The first track Emotion Sickness has full string sections that jolt or lilt depending on the song’s tempo, which changes throughout. Ana’s Song, Miss You Love and Paint Pastel Princess are standout tracks from this album with hauntingly beautiful melodies.

Where Neon Ballroom might fall short is in the lyrics; listeners may get the feeling that Johns is writing words that ‘fit’ the music, rather than to convey a story. While poorly articulated in the verbal sense, there is no lack of legitimate emotion. Daniel Johns admitted to have been suffering from anorexia caused by anxiety, a condition that whittled him away physically while fuelling him creatively. 

 In 2002 the band released their fourth studio album Diorama, which I consider to be their magnum opus. The album rings and crunches and chimes with the complexity that was glimpsed in Neon Ballroom, but includes a certain light and color that was hitherto absent. It is likely that this can be attributed to Johns’ relative happiness at that time; his improved health and his marriage to Aussie pop star Natalie Imbruglia.

Here’s the rub: singles from Diorama topped the charts in Australia but did not see the same exposure in North America as their first two albums. This, to me, is the singular reason I have to insist to people that Silverchair got really, really good. North American audiences largely missed out on the band’s later years of musical maturity and excellence, and this is a crying shame.

Since Diorama, Silverchair have released another studio album called Young Modern. I eagerly bought an advance copy but found myself disappointed. It seems the band is continuing to experiment with sounds, moods and methods, and Young Modern didn’t speak to me as intimately as Neon Ballroom and Diorama. However, it is because those two albums touched me as deeply as they did that I will continue to call myself a fan and defend the band’s musical integrity to those who can only recall 15-year-olds on MTV.

Here is a clip of Miss You Love being performed in Newcastle post-Diorama era. I never get tired of hearing it. Put your headphones on, forget the 15-year-olds and see if you don’t get goosebumps.

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