Silverchair is a band that seems to be incapable of being brought up in conversation with inducing smirks from most people. To these people, Silverchair was and always will be a group of sixteen year old goofballs from Australia who were swept up in the mid-90s hunt for the next Nirvana; an era where anything that sounded remotely “grunge” was worthy of a major label contract. “Tomorrow” was their passable first single, but they did themselves no favors with subsequent singles such as “Pure Massacre” and “Freak”. Silly and sophomoric in terms of both lyrics and music, their music frequently reeked of the music that sixteen year olds are wont to make, and offer a valid argument that perhaps with such erratic emotional states that the legal driving age be raised to eighteen.There were glimpses of something bigger and better lurking within.Yet here and there were glimpses of something bigger and better lurking within. “Abuse Me”, the lead single from their unfortunately titled second album “Freak Show” displayed texture and sounds otherwise unexplored by the band. Even more surprising was the band’s third album, “Neon Ballroom”, a nearly even split of the old Silverchair and a bold new direction. Opening volley “Emotion Sickness” provided a lyrical depth to singer Daniel Johns’ emotional turmoil (he had suffered from a battle with anorexia between albums) that was previously not present in Silverchair’s songs, and the music itself was dense, complex, and rewarding. “Emotion Sickness” was a dark journey led by Johns, guest pianist David Helfgott (subject of the film Shine), and a full symphony orchestra. “Ana’s Song” detailed Johns’ struggles with anorexia with alternating grace and wrenching despair and emotion, all while keeping a level of maturity missing from most other artists a decade older than he. Many of the aforementioned people who get a giggle out of Silverchair stopped paying attention before this phase. In fact, most people in general did, which is quite a shame. The followup album was their career highlight and one of the best albums of the Aughts.
“Diorama” was released early in 2002 with little fanfare in the United States. Presumably Atlantic Records had given up on the band already after lackluster sales of “Neon Ballroom” as I heard about its release via word of mouth alone. Produced by David Bottrill, best known for his work with Tool and King Crimson, “Diorama” was a surprising turn for band and producer alike. Opening number “Across the Night” is a whimsical mix of harpsichord, woodwinds, and standard rock instrumentation. A friend once described “Diorama” as the soundtrack to fairy tales that had yet to be written; nowhere is this more accurate than “Across the Night”. After following the standard verse/chorus/verse patterns that have been plaguing rock songs for decades, the song opens up to a darker, more intense finale with Johns repeating the mantra “I don’t want to be lonely/I just want to be alone”, a line in itself that had not been paralleled in any of their prior work. A short suite of woodwinds, harps, and solo violin resolves the song back within a major key. It’s clear from the end of track one that the Silverchair that wrote drivel such as “Suicidal Dream” were long gone.
Lead single “The Greatest View” preceded the album with a Led Zeppelinesque riff and chord progression, but provided a lyrical optimism that Silverchair had yet to provide. “View” is a song that glorifies the elation that comes with a happy relationship. With its old-fanbase pleasing riffing and subsequent sonic breathing space, it is a damn catchy song and sublime single. Its melodies are immediately hummable, and it makes the most of having orchestral embellishments, understanding full well that “making the most” does not mean “oversaturate”.
Between the dynamics and incredible melodies of other songs such as “World Upon Your Shoulders”, “My Favourite Thing”, and “Luv Your Life”, the highs of “Diorama” are astounding; it’s a sonic vista of peak after peak with very few valleys between. However, valleys do exist. Old habits can die hard, and “One Way Mule” is an easily skippable reminder that, yes, Silverchair did once play grunge music. “Lever” threatens to sink to the same depth, but manages to avoid it slightly by creative use of a brass section. In the other direction, “After All These Years” narrowly avoids becoming a syrupy piano ballad via clever lyrics on the part of Johns and a clever arrangement, courtesy of Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks.
Through the good and the bad, Johns’ vocal acrobatics really take center stage on “Diorama” even with the gorgeous and lush instrumental arrangements. The liner notes proudly state that no auto-tune was used in the making of “Diorama”, and it shows. His voice ebbs and flows in the stratosphere on most songs and is never perfect, but it is always frighteningly close. The instrumentation of the band is fantastic, as well; Johns is an adept guitarist, and bassist Chris Joannou and drummer Ben Gilles are a formidable and flexible rhythm section, creating a powerful foundation for Johns whether his interests lay in soundtracking a fantasy landscape in his mind or satisfying his inner teenage angst.
Silverchair went on to record the album “Young Modern” with the moderate radio hit “Straight Lines”, another mature, if less creative, outing for the band. When regrouping for its follow up, they determined that the magic wasn’t there, even if just for the time being, and announced a hiatus. Even if Silverchair never releases another note of music, “Diorama” remains a criminally undernoticed masterpiece. It was a great example of how even in the year 2002, the album was still an important and viable format for creative artists who cared to make them.