Review Summary: Growing Pains.
Coming of age. It’s a familiar cliché, a means of putting a name to a process we all go through as we evolve from angst-ridden teenagers into different, and more mature people. It’s a part of life that is often riddled with awkwardness, confusion and all the other s*** that comes with growing up, and it’s a period a lot of us are more than happy to forget as we begin our adult lives. For Daniel Johns circa 1999 however, the transition both from adolescence to adulthood and from moody grunge kid to emerging artist has been captured on tape for the world to hear. The rollercoaster ride of ups and downs from this transitionary phase in his life has been crystallised on Neon Ballroom, and forms a captivating narrative to both a musical coming of age and a flood of emotional pain for the boy from Newcastle. Neon Ballroom is the sound of Johns finally starting to branch out into surprisingly original artistic territory and setting Silverchair off onto a new, more creative path. Whether you are a fan of SIlverchair’s divergence from their earlier sound or not, the newfound honesty of Johns and his willingness to channel emotion from his troublesome formative years into his writing with an almost therapeutic earnestness here makes Neon Ballroom a far more diverse and complex listen than his previous work.
Neon Ballroom is the first Silverchair record where Johns really begins to find his own voice as an artist after prematurely storming to popularity by emulating (well) the apathy and aggression of his grunge idols with ‘Frogstomp’ and ‘Freak Show’. While the band does not completely abandon their grunge and hardcore influences on their third outing, Johns contributes a host of more thematic and delicate compositions to the mix which showcase his emergence as a much more mature songwriter than the teenage kid who penned ‘Israel’s Son’ and ‘Freak’. The record maintains a polarising duality between the old and new incarnations of Silverchair throughout, with the title directly acknowledging this contrast: Neon = new and Ballroom = old. While this may make it sound like a perfectly natural transition into maturity for a band thrust into the spotlight at a young age, it belies the severe torment that afflicted Johns at the time. Depression, frequent suicidal thoughts, isolation, reclusiveness, angst and battles with anorexia nervosa and crippling arthritis were the defining features of Johns’ life at this stage, and unsurprisingly, these themes resonate strongly in the music of Neon Ballroom.
Album opener Emotion Sickness is a dramatic and captivating ode to emotional angst that, with strings provided by Van Dyke Parks of all people, creates a hauntingly effective atmosphere of the yearning and desperation felt by Johns during his depression. The emotion and pain is palpable, with Johns’ vocal range really making the song when he builds up the intensity in his voice singing
“Burn my knees and pray / Distorted eyes when everything is clearly dying /
All my friends say…” before cascading into anguished guttural cries of “Get up, get up, get up / Won’t you stop my pain?” The song is the highlight of the album in my mind, and has lost none of its intensity over many repeated listens. The other highlights of the album are Ana’s Song and Miss You Love, which convey the emotional toll of Johns’ struggles in different, but still effective ways. Ana’s Song makes little attempt to be subtle, directly referencing Johns’ relationship with his anorexia and the effect the illness had on his life. It makes a vague attempt at calling anorexia “Ana” as if it could be sung about a girl, but Johns then sings about an “anorexia life” in the very next line. Subtlety is not the point however, and the song outlines how the illness affected Johns’ life with an endearingly forthright songwriting approach.
Miss You Love is different again, but still conveys the often ***ty and confusing realities of adolescence. Having feelings for someone when you’re still working who you are yourself can be complicated at best and downright torturous at worst, and there is a sense of regretful resignation in Johns’ voice when he sings:
“I'm not, not sure, Not too sure how it feels, To handle everyday, Like the one that just past, In the crowds of all the people”
This is soon offset with a sudden burst of aggression when he then growls: “It’s just a fad, a part of the teenage angst brigade”.
Johns has stated the song was written about his inability to get close to people outside of his family and connect with people of his own age, and this is well represented by the moodiness of both the lyrics and varied vocal delivery.
While (for want of a better metaphor) listening to Neon Ballroom can at times feel like watching a fledgling bird finally learning to take flight and leave its past behind, there is still plenty of leftover aggression from the ‘Freakshow’ and ‘Frogstomp’ days to be found. Spawn Again in particular fits this bill, and is one of the heaviest songs Silverchair have ever written. It is a vitriolic protest song about animal liberation, a cause Johns felt very strongly about at the time. It combines a furious dropped D riff with thunderous, primal bass, tom heavy drumming from Gillies and anguished, animalistic screaming from Johns. The song is powerful but also relatively simplistic both musically and lyrically, conveying both the naivety and vitriol in the kind of idealistic outrage many people start to really feel in their late teens. It, along with songs like Satin Sheets and Dearest Helpless, provide a counter-weight to the melodic sensibilities of songs like Black Tangled Heart and Paint Pastel Princess which ensures fans of the earlier albums still have something to enjoy.
While there are plenty of individual highlights, what makes Neon Ballroom such a captivating listen overall is it’s sequencing. It consistently juxtaposes the “old” grunge/hardcore influenced songs with the “new” Silverchair songs, creating plenty of contrast. Whether this a deliberate acknowledgment by the band of the competing styles found on the album or not, it provides for plenty of twists and turns that ensure it never gets dull. For example, Emotion Sickness is followed by the grungy, backbeat driven Anthem for the Year 2000, Ana’s Song is followed by Spawn Again, which then leads straight back into “new” territory with Miss You Love. The second half of the album is not quite as bipolar, but still showcases the duality of the album. Songs like Paint Pastel Princess and Black Tangled Heart are indicative of Johns’ changing songwriting approach, while Satin Sheets and Dearest Helpless would fit seamlessly into Freak Show.
In the end, Neon Ballroom is a transitory album for SIlverchair, which documents the transition from their high school grunge days into a more diverse and mature band. The album clearly sows the seeds for the more focused and orchestral ‘Diorama’, but still stands on its own in their discography. While the combination of old and new styles of songwriting make the album interesting, songs like Emotion Sickness, Ana’s Song and Miss You Love are also some of the most accomplished songs Johns ever wrote. This makes Neon Ballroom a crucially important listen for any Silverchair fan to chart the development of the band, but also a good entry point for people not familiar with their music to get a taste of the different territory Daniel Johns, Ben Gillies and Ben Joannou covered in their young careers.
Miss You Love
Paint Pastel Princess