15 Years On – A Defense of Silverchair’s Diorama

I remember seeing an interview with Daniel Johns once, sometime around the mid-2000s, where he lamented an almost daily occurrence.

“People come up to me in the park”, Johns said, rolling his eyes. “And they say – ‘maaaan. Frogstomp! What happened?’ And I’m like, ‘Man, you just ruined my day.’”

It’s a sentiment I understood then, and understand even better now. Sure, Frogstomp is great, though listening to it again recently it struck me just how much it sounds like Pearl Jam and Nirvana lovingly mashed up and filtered through some very young, albeit very talented, music fans. The enormity of Silverchair’s artistic progression over the next three albums is something I think is not widely enough acknowledged. From the tighter and more muscular Freak Show to the hints of OTT bombast that characterised Neon Ballroom and finally to the spine-tingling technicolour of Diorama – it’s almost unprecedented.

What bands today progress with this kind of ambition, and succeed? I can confidently say that no-one listening to Frogstomp in 1995 would have predicted that in seven years this band would be recording with Van Dyke Parkes and a full orchestra in songs of incredibly vivid imagination and complexity. And all this while under the enormous pressure of starting out as a trio of 15-year-olds whisked from Newcastle High to national attention with frightening speed.

Sure, I’m biased. Diorama is one of those albums that’s more than a selection of recorded numbers to me. It’s more than an album. It’s a part of my life, and will always be a part of my life. The songs are all part of my DNA. When I listen, I can almost see and touch my memories from when it was released, when I was just beginning to fall in love with music, and I listened to it obsessively. The album is so intensely nostalgic for me that re-listening now is like a five-dimensional out of body experience.

The fact remains it’s a stellar achievement on every level: no just in songwriting, but in sheer vision, scope and imaginativeness. Johns wanted it to be an album where people could ‘come home, put on headphones and enter this magical world’. This is music to completely lose yourself in, a paradise of frisson in which Johns is always at the centre. His lyrics veer from the bizarre (‘You brighten my life/like a Polystyrene Hat’) to the poignant and eminently relatable (‘I don’t want to be lonely/I just want to be alone’). Given his past health struggles, the songs take on an air of world-beating exhilaration, tempered with Johns’ sardonic edge.

It’s melodic, powerful, heavy, colourful and hugely ambitious – watching Johns in the studio on the ‘Making Of’ documentary, he reminds me strongly of Brian Wilson – a prodigious creator of music, quietly watching his vision realise itself around him. ‘Tuna in the Brine’ stands out among many highlights, its off-kilter chord progression and witty wordplay a perfect match Van Dyke Parke’s quirky orchestral arrangement.

But for all this experimentation, the Chair still know how to rock out on Diorama. ‘The Greatest View’, ‘One Way Mule’ and ‘The Lever’ come equipped killer riffs and big hooks, while the middle eight of ‘Without You’ is one of those great rock moments where the song coalesces brilliantly into an outpouring of heart-pounding emotion. Elsewhere, ‘After All These Years’ shows off Johns’ ability as a vocalist, sweet-toned and deftly melodic.

The psych-pop of 2006’s Young Modern continued in a similar vein but felt more like a Daniel Johns solo album, with his friends showing up to help. On Diorama, the trio from Newcastle created one of the great Australian albums, all at once exuberant, youthful and wise beyond its years.

by Luke Iredale

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