Review Summary: Neon Ballroom, a work loud and soft, intense and soothing, and in its emotional intimacy, is an album that must be experienced, and is ultimately a masterpiece.
When Neon Ballroom was released in 1999, the three members of Silverchair were merely nineteen years old. The complexity, lyrical eloquence, and grand scope of this album are nothing short of amazing when taking into account the fact that they were so young. But two years after their sophomore release Freak Show, a grunge-influenced mess of an album with but a few moments of brilliance, the maturity evident in Neon Ballroom is shocking. And the credit goes to the mad scientist behind Silverchair, the writer and composer of every song, the brilliant frontman Daniel Johns--a veritable Australian Mozart.
Neon Ballroom is one of Johns’ most personal albums. We can feel his pain in Emotion Sickness, his illness in Ana’s Song, his wrath in Spawn Again. We can feel his heartache in Miss You Love and Paint Pastel Princess, and his insecurity and vulnerability in Steam Will Rise. We begin to understand that Daniel Johns is not the callow fifteen-year-old kid who sang Israel’s Son and Tomorrow and waved his long, dirty, blonde hair all over the stage anymore; he is, even at nineteen, a very mature, very introspective young artist--and already much more experienced onstage than many artists several years his senior.
His lyrics are very personal and seem to be closer to actual poems than your typical songs--eschewing the banal verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure in several of the songs. In the album opener, the brilliantly titled Emotion Sickness--a six-minute epic filled with impressive piano and orchestral flourishes quite reminiscent at times of the Smashing Pumpkin’s Tonight, Tonight though infinitely darker and more emotional--he cries,
Burn my knees,
Burn my knees and pray,
Distorted eyes when everything is clearly dying,
All my friends say,
“Get up, get up, get up,”
Won’t you stop my pain"
painting a bleak portrait of his battles with the intense fires of his arthritis that sometimes leave him bedridden for weeks. (In fact, in 2002, upon the release of Neon Ballroom’s successor, Diorama, he suffered such a severe attack that he was forced to cancel their imminent tour because he couldn’t stand, holding a guitar, for the length of a single song.)
And in the third track, Ana’s Song (Open Fire), he sings about his bout with anorexia, cleverly substituting the eating disorder with what one thinks is a girl named Ana.
And you’re my obsession,
I love you to the bones,
And Ana wrecks your life,
Like an anorexia life.
Brilliant lyrics like these are found throughout the album, as when in Do You Feel The Same Johns bitterly sings of someone reading his spine as one would read another’s facial expression or perceive another’s mood. Or when, in Miss You Love, he sings of loving the way in which someone loves him but hating the way he is supposed to love the person back.
But there is anger, perhaps even hatred, present in the album as well. Daniel Johns is an avid animal rights activist, even having filmed an advertisement protesting the torture KFC inflicts on its chickens, and the band thanks in the liner notes such organizations as Animal Liberation and the Humane Farming Association. But it is in the track Spawn Again--a nu-metal flavored screed with chunky guitar riffs and booming drums--that Johns screams, literally, his frustration with man's crimes against animals.
These are the facts so eat what you murder,
This is animal liberation,
Eight billion killed for human pleasure,
Bring on the ape farm, demolish the monkeys,
Drink up, drink up, look down on junkies.
The pain, the heartache, the anger, it is all palpable--but that is not to say that the instruments don't have voices of their own. The guitar work is painstakingly written, adeptly produced, and often uniquely tuned. The drums are pleasantly loud and satisfying. In fact, Neon Ballroom possesses a loudness to it, a refreshing quality of sheer intensity that may just leave one breathless. And Johns’ voice is raw and intense, a vast transformation in the two years since Freak Show.
Neon Ballroom, a work loud and soft, intense and soothing, and in its emotional intimacy, is an album that must be experienced, and is ultimately a masterpiece. It is one of the best albums to have ever come out of Australia, if not the single best.