Martin Phillipps, the central figure of the Chills, has led a life with enough drama that it warranted a documentary, 2019’s captivating The Chills: The Triumph & Tragedy of Martin Phillipps. Following that film and the songwriter’s health scare, it makes sense that a new Chills album would come with a focus on mortality and the big questions of life. With a remarkably consistent lineup throughout this era of the band, the Chills keep their knack for hooks and melodies at the front of their sound on Scatterbrain while adding some more complex arrangements. The philosophical lyrics, the earworms, and the sonic creativity combine for an album that keeps the band engaging even after 40 years.
The album opens in a dark place of strength. “Monolith” asserts, “We have weathered the ages / And still we stand … Honour the monolith.” Phillipps himself has weathered plenty himself, and this new cut announces that his strength continues. The Dunedin sound he helped develop now sounds like runes and cloaks have been added to its pop and post-punk. The track approaches the effect of a mantra, created by its own force and the ability to persist indefinitely even within the limits of a pop song.
No one, of course, stands indefinitely, and Phillipps understands that idea after his experience with hepatitis C. Thoughts of our eventual end permeate Scatterbrain. In “Hourglass”, we find “black holes draining all the light away”. “Caught in My Eye” deals directly with the grief of losing someone close. “Destiny” sounds most reminiscent of a classic Chills song, even as it considers that “I’m soon to leave and I won’t be seen again”. The Chills’ wondrous pop sensibilities guide a song about finding free will (or not) and facing an unrelenting void alone (or, ideally, not). The force of the song comes not from Phillipps’ meditations but his core plea: “Destiny, have empathy.” In a troubled world, there’s still room for connections.
Thanks to that sort of outlook, the album resists the latent bleakness tucked into its thought. The Chills take on loss and distance, fake news and aliens, and discover the possibility that confusion could reign. The group stays intense as it challenges these troubles, standing firm and facing the trials of life honestly but firmly. The images from “Monolith” support their stance. In all the commotion, we can endure. More than that, though, we can create. The Chills integrate strings, keys, and even horns into their songs in clever ways. The band reaches for a big sweep while staying grounded in pop songs, and the approach maintains an unflagging energy.
Closing number “The Walls Beyond Abandon” recognizes that you can’t escape the inevitable, no matter big, brave, or bright you are. The Chills, though, recognize something bigger than dismay. We may end in a whimper or a bang or something else, but that doesn’t mean we stop. Seeing tragedy allows us to move deeper. Phillipps and the Chills reject easy answers, but they press on anyway. If they sound less like a staid monolith and more like a recharged band, that’s even better.