Album Review: The Chills – Scatterbrain


The Chills Scatterbrain artwork

This is the most stable line-up of The Chills there’s ever been throughout the Dunedin band’s four-decades-plus history; permanently anchored around singer/songwriter Martin Phillipps, the current quintet have now been together since 2011, in the process gradually resuscitating one of New Zealand’s most revered musical institutions.

At least some of their inner workings were shown in the 2018 biopic The Chills: The Triumph & Tragedy Of Martin Phillipps, a documentary in which their lead singer was, he claims, happy to be portrayed as more of an autocrat than off camera he feels he really is.

If there was any serious internecine fall-out in the aftermath however, Scatterbrain – which follows Silver Bullets and 2018’s Snow Bound into their post-reformation catalogue – certainly doesn’t show it, the contents being made up of some assured and by now familiar antipodean conscience-led indie rock.

There’s a fine line between sanctimony and protest, one that requires a rational streak. In this mode, Scatterbrain’s title-track pithily skewers the death of bipartisanship in modern discourse with, ‘So logic is over-simplification/No room for appealing and no remonstration’, over a doomy froth, while opener Monolith returns mankind to the power of the stones, complete with gleeful chanting about blood and ancient rites.

Respecting those who respect the planet and seeing nature as its true power has been a recurring motif in the band’s work long before this imprint, but in a pattern continuing on from Snow Bound, Phillipps is now more open to talking about both himself and his own fears, having battled back in the recent past from a place where death promised to be imminent.

The reaper though will have to remain patient for now. At times, and in keeping with his typically self-effacing manner, what shows up in the emotional spotlight is almost too awkward to bear. Never more so is the case than on Destiny, on the surface an almost sugary rocker but whose lyrical fatalism extends right up to, ‘I know I won’t avoid the void eternally/And mortality, well it must be met alone’.

Even before that stark acknowledgement its predecessor, the gently countrified Hourglass, holds a mirror up against solitude and the mood swings which it both comes from and is fueled by, a further unpeeling of the thick skin the singer had been forced to grow whilst in a self-induced wilderness.

And as if to empty the box of confessions and admissions, the melodramatic Caught In My Eye is about the death of his mother, the accompanying feelings of regret and denial slowly melting into long term grief.

It’s worth saying that whilst there are some profound goings on across Scatterbrain, the things that have always made The Chills sound distinct and listenable play their understated part too.

Closer The Walls Beyond Abandon distills all that was and remains great about the Southern Hemisphere sound of twentieth century contemporaries The Triffids or The Go-Betweens, while Worlds Within Worlds, with its breezy strings and gorgeous brass, is arguably this iteration of the band’s finest song yet.

Stability helps, as does being in a place where everybody knows their roles. Martin Phillips has set himself and The Chills on a path which has gone way beyond rebirth in anyone’s eyes; with that goal achieved, if every chapter from now on carries this much heart and conviction they’ll be hard to simply ignore.

Andy Peterson
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