Pop music, at least effective pop music, is about bad things; however, we mostly hear about sexy bad things. We’re not used to listening to pop music about getting old and navigating a world that will leave you behind. The fact that pop music about this topic barely exists pushes Scatterbrain into territory of its own.
Not that The Chills play pop music that resembles anything close to the charts in the past 20 years. This is the kind of pop favored by those who love their favorite songs to come from out-of-print 7”s.
The Chills were part of the original ‘80s wave of twee and jangle pop from New Zealand associated with the Flying Nun label along with artists like The Clean, The Verlaines, The Tall Dwarfs, The Sneaky Feelings, The Bats, etc.
The Chills and cohorts had an influence on indie rock from the ‘80s on, with acts such as R.E.M., Pavement, Cat Power, The Mountain Goats, Superchunk and Jay Reatard naming them as inspirations. Although enjoying recognition with 1986’s Kaleidoscope World and 1990’s Submarine Bells, main singer-songwriter Martin Phillipps and The Chills were erratic at best throughout their career, changing members constantly, breaking up, and going long periods of time without activity. Sometimes the darkness underneath their sweet melodies would become too real for them.
Scatterbrain is not shy about diving into uncomfortable topics. Phillipps, having survived addiction and chronic illness, ponders what later life has in store for him. His lyrics focus on loss, the passing of time and looking back while retaining his pop instincts as sharp as always.
The existence of The Chills in this millennium — let alone in such a formidable mode — is a small miracle in itself having spent 19 years on hiatus before their return in 2015. Scatterbrain is something of a culmination, representing a cohesiveness that has been absent from most of The Chills discography, even allowing them to take some musical leaps of faith that often pay off.
Album opener “Monolith” is propelled by a stomp-groove of a song that doesn’t settle into a fixed genre, as close as fun as it gets here. The mood changes drastically by the next track, “Hourglass” — in which Phillipps ponders the passing of time and mortality — as it goes for a gentler approach, with ornate arrangements and an instrumental hook. The rest of Scatterbrain swings from art pop experimentations to gentle balladry. David Bowie seems to be a constant influence throughout, and it’s easy to think about the Thin White Duke’s swan song Blackstar considering the subject matter and mood throughout the album but lighter tracks like “Little Alien” seem to harken back to Scary Monsters without mimicking too closely to either album.
As the album progresses, the experimentations get more daring and the songwriting sharpens as the song sequencing builds towards the title track: A droning repetitive waltz broken open by electronics and strings, presenting something both challenging and melodic.
However, Phillipps and company save the best for last. “The Walls Beyond Abandon” is a bleak observation about mortality that presents itself as something of a modern jangle pop rewrite, with grand melodies and synths buzzing in the background while retaining its love for pop melodies. It’s the perfect note to end on.
There is nothing like The Chills right now, a project that struggles between aging and evolution while remaining suspended in time. While few will pick this as the quintessential Chills album, it’s a great work of art that has plenty of satisfying moments. A collection of gorgeous melodies enveloped by off-kilter, yet lovely instrumentals that make staring into the void an enjoyable experience.
Prerequisites: The Chills’ Kaleidoscope World, Submarine Bells and Silver Bullets
Essential tracks: “Hourglass,” “Scatterbrain” and “The Walls Beyond Abandon”