Review Summary: HEADLINE: Daniel Johns overcomes illness; changes name to Ziggy Lennon
“The band is back together!”, Daniel Johns proudly announces in the second verse of opening track “Young Modern Station”.
“About time!”, any Silverchair fan will respond- and not without justification.
At the time Young Modern dropped, it had been five years since the release of what many critics and fans alike called Silverchair’s masterpiece, Diorama
. In that time, Silverchair-related events included some exceptional music (including The Dissociatives and Tambalane), a near break-up of the band (yes, again), marriage (frontman Daniel Johns and former Neighbours actress/“Torn” singer Natalie Imbruglia, recently divorced), the end of a long-term relationship (bassist Chris Joannou and former Superjesus rock chick Sarah McLeod), occasional live shows (2005’s Waveaid seen as the heralding return) and Johns attempting work on a solo album (he later claimed he couldn't do it without Chris and Ben, the ever-faithful Chair rhythm section). Some even believed that Silverchair were gone for good.
But all the bull*** became immediately irrelevant when Young Modern finally hit our airwaves. The album is fifty-minute pop opus that eliminates the zoned-out teens who gave us 1994’s Frogstomp
completely; perhaps more than Diorama
did at the time of its release. In their place, three sharply-dressed men stand, with a few aces up their sleeves and a confidence in the direction of the band that is stronger than ever.
There are some early signs of change from the word go, with “Young Modern Station” featuring heavy use of organ, and great effects on Daniel Johns’ voice, who nails both bluesy rasps and falsetto crooning in the verses. The instrumental bridge right before the last chorus is quite possibly the most rocking part of the whole record, definitely as “live” as the band has sounded since Freak Show
As the final sequencer bleep echoes off, the track flows into lead single “Straight Lines”; a song arguably written purely for the stadium. The song deals with Johns’ past battles with illness and depression, and how he is getting his life back on track: “I don’t need no time to say there’s no changing yesterday…everything will be fine”. A soaring piano introduction, infectiously catchy “ooh”s, almost tribal tom fills and a Who-style build-up to the guitar- for Silverchair, this is pop perfection
The song is a triumph; a movement in a new direction and a brilliant one at that.
From here, the album brings in the masterful “If You Keep Losing Sleep”. If you were not a fan of Johns’ 2004 work in The Dissociatives, it’s probably best that you skip this track. For those of you not-so narrow minded, feel free to enjoy this fantastically twisted little ditty.
Everything works here, from the haunted house organ of long-time Chair collaborator Paul Mac and the Jimmy Chamberlain-esque drum rolls and crashes of Gillies, to the wild, intense vocals of Johns. Even with some of Johns’ worst lyrics on the whole record (Daniel, seriously- “such seductive silent wine hopscotch trigger”?), it makes for fantastic listening. This track also marks the first appearance on the album of the legendary composer Van Dyke Parks, best known for his work with The Beach Boys. He’s done wonders for the Silverchair boys in the past, and here is no exception; featuring epic string arrangements and masterful orchestration- another complete credit to his already impressive work.
Next up, it’s the layered, lush, solo John Lennon-meets-solo George Harrison harmonic pop of “Reflections of A Sound”. When put in contrast with its predecessors on the album thus far, the track will seem boring and uninspired on its first few listens. Despite this, it is still reasonably enjoyable. Pros include lovely harmonies in the chorus, bright guitar and some great lyricism (notably when Johns admits mid-song: “My head is full of pressure” and “I need time to cure my mind”). This track is another good example of the vision Johns has for the album musically- creating a 60s/70s pop-rock sound and modifying it for a modern audience.
Track five is a trilogy entitled “Those Thieving Birds”. Not only is this song the album’s standout, but this may well go down as the best song Silverchair have ever created.
The ambience of the guitar and vocals throughout the introduction is sublime, and once again, Van Dyke Parks is at work creating a subtle string section in part one that, chances are, you won’t pick up on first time around. Sparse instrumentation follows (ringing bass from Joannou and simple kick-snare work from Gillies) as Johns sings of “thieving birds”, which “hang strung from an empty nest”.
The production here, provided by both Johns and long-time associate Nick Launay, is simply perfect; the mix ensures nothing is overpowering just yet, building up to the majesty of the tracks second and main part- “Strange Behaviour”.
A true piece de resistance of Young Modern, this part of the song soars, thanks in no small part to the mix- the guitar and bass is, for the most part, moved to the back to make way for the orchestra, piano, keyboards and, of course, Johns’ vocals. The guitar in this track however, which swaps frequently from buzzing electric to clean-as-a-whistle acoustic, adds a nice touch in parts when breaking down the instrumentation and production.
The flight of part 2, eventually, halts, leading to Johns’ vocals alone with a piano and a little quiet glockenspiel. And, as the orchestra draws out its last notes, the same guitar picking that was heard in the song’s introduction is re-introduced, this time with a richer, thicker-sounding guitar.
This song will impact on you immediately, but it won’t truly sink in until after a few listens- this is a vision of Daniel Johns; the entire soundscape created in his mind. In this day and age of Australian pop music, it is relieving to know that such groundbreaking and challenging pop songs are being made in this country.
“The Man That Knew Too Much” has the unfortunate honour of following Those Thieving Birds. Because of this, some may deem the song skippable. On its own, however, it is a boppy and occasionally delightful song, wearing its Beatles influence proudly on its sleeve- certainly not the kind of thing you would have found amongst songs like “Hide Away” and “Suicidal Dream” back in 1994.
The same can be said for “Waiting All Day”, a summer pop tune that Johns claims was his favourite song to write and record for the album. Given the bright, upbeat sound and the songs’ extensive layers, it’s not hard to see why. More experimental quirks come in the form of Michelle Rose’s slightly cheesy slide guitar and the ever-eccentric Luke Steele of The Sleepy Jackson providing backing vocals (in reverse, no less).
At this stage, the band throws a curve ball in the form of the Bolan-meets-Bowie rock stomp of “Mind Reader”. The song features one of the best hooks throughout the whole album:“Don’t know what you want! Don’t know what you want! No, I’m not a mind reader, baby, c’mon!”. The guitar and bass lines may be simple but are just the thing the song needs to accompany Johns’ madman vocals, as he howls and wails about his “addictive dependent” and something about “telephone shoes”. It’s an effortless swagger of cool, and by this stage in the album it’s most certainly time to party like it’s 1979.
“Take a look inside my mind” beckons Johns on track nine, “Low”. The song features, once again, use of the slide guitar, in this case sounding an awful lot like something on the first Sleepy Jackson record. The lyrics here describe Johns’ depression and how out of place he felt at his, for want of a better phrase, lowest- “Have you ever been lost? Floating on the ground, like a fading frost”. Unfortunately, “Low” doesn’t have the triumphant aura of “Straight Lines”, and even at its loudest feels fairly laid back. It feels though it would have worked either in a different place on the album, or not on the album at all.
As the album draws to a close, “Insomnia” throws one last fit of energy into the record with an outstanding dance rock vibe and verses that sound like they were written to be clapped along to. Initially, the song’s sound is pure modern rock, with a echoing synth line that is reminiscent of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs single “Cheated Hearts”.Once the chorus kicks in, however, it’s pure 70s rock all over again. This isn’t a bad thing per se, but given how fresh and original Diorama
sounded, it seems an odd move for the Chair to go all “retro rock” on us. The song even references this, with Johns claiming he’s “doing the fun retro thing”. It’s definitely fun, but at the same time it comes off as a little stale or uninspired when overdone on the album.
Finally, Young Modern gives us one last song in “All Across The World”. It’s a difficult task when it comes to describing this song. Essentially, it’s a hands-in-the-air, careless sing-a-long; high on love, Tim Burton and whatever else Johns was smoking at the time. Whilst not instantly likable, its charm grows on you upon each listen. It’s good that the music is so captivating, as Johns is pretty much rambling on about nothing in particular on this little ditty. Some would argue that this is the case throughout, but I personally have often defended Johns as a lyricist- he DOES have something to say, he simply chooses to convey it in a very obscure way. He’s not the first to do it, and he definitely won’t be the last.
And so, another installment has been made in the Silverchair legacy. Young Modern
is more straightforward in its rock style than Neon Ballroom
and less theatrical than Diorama
, which to this day remains their best album. Silverchair, as a band, have changed again, with Daniel Johns making his objectives with this record clear- to make a White Album for a modern audience.
Sure, he didn't necessarily succeed, but who knows? With any luck, we could get an Abbey Road
(or another Sgt. Pepper’s
) out of them still.