Once you reach the level of intellectual maturity where you can tell the difference between cryptic but poetic lyrics and nonsensical crap, you have outgrown Silverchair.
Bands that become big during their teenage years are pretty much doomed to self-destruction once they reach adulthood, but somehow Silverchair have survived. While each album they released has reached multi-platinum status here in their native Australia, it’s been a downward slide in sales around the world since their hit debut Frogstomp. Singer Daniel Johns made it out of his teenage years after suffering severe depression, anorexia nervosa, and crippling rheumatoid arthritis, and after a bunch of side projects, has come around to reform Silverchair to make Young Modern, their first album in five years.
1995’s Frogstomp was, from a record company perspective, a marvelous idea. A non-threatening collection of angsty teenage grunge songs, actually performed by angsty teenagers. Songs like “Tomorrow” and “Pure Massacre” appealed to angst-ridden teenagers the world over, and the fifteen-year olds found themselves playing rock festivals that they were too young to gain admission to.
And while it was easy to criticise Frogstomp for all its shortcomings—its lack of originality, poor lyrics, sloppy musicianship, and uncanny resemblance to Pearl Jam—the truth remained that it was still a pretty good effort for three fifteen-year olds from the industrial city of Newcastle.
But with their musical tastes developing, as is the case with all adolescents, their style was never static. 1997’s Freak Show bore the frustration of not only being a teenager, but having the pressure of being Australia’s second biggest band of the decade (behind the Wiggles). The songs were loud, dumb, and great fun to jump around to, but only one number, “Petrol and Chlorine”, indicated that there was more to Silverchair than just being noisy.
The band progressed from grunge to hardcore to baroque pop with each album, the only real unifying theme between albums being the hesitance to record anything that wouldn’t get played on commercial radio. Or at least commercial radio in Australia. 2002’s Diorama was a genuine step in the right direction, but for every majestic blast of florid pop (“Tuna in the Brine”), there was a dumb burst of dirgy grunge (“One Way Mule”).
Five years and several side projects on, Young Modern is what seems to be a deliberate retreat to the safer territory that has too long been dominated by upstarts like Keane and Snow Patrol. Lead single “Straight Lines” feels like nothing but a drawn-out introduction to a song, while the opener, “Young Modern Station”, sounds like Bends-era Radiohead trying to be ironically commercial. Not even the lovely George Harrison-esque slide guitar of “Low” can salvage a song that feels simply half-baked, while “The Man Who Knew Too Much” is downright awful.
Gone are the Seattle sounds that dominated their first two albums, and with Daniel Johns’ shortly cropped hair, it seems that the only thing he now shares in common with Kurt Cobain, who he was frequently likened to, is his inability to write lyrics.
Nick Launay, best known for producing no-wave records from artists like the Birthday Party, Gang of Four, and the Virgin Prunes, as well as the noisier of Nick Cave’s later releases, has developed an album that is uncharacteristically slick. It feels like the sounds are so polished that you could see your reflection in them. But the production, coupled with the tightly rehearsed band that Silverchair have become, especially with Daniel Johns’ effortless falsetto, make the record too clinical to enjoy on more than a superficial level.
The only promising number on the album is the adventurous “If You Keep Losing Sleep”, bookended with tumultuous Beach Boys backing vocals, and tastefully held together with the sweeping orchestral arrangements of Van Dyke Parks. If anything, “If You Keep Losing Sleep” is proof that Silverchair are capable of recording interesting music, even though they so readily aim for the most boring styles most of the time.
Young Modern displays a band with the talent to do something new, but without the guts to try.