Album Review: The Chills – Scatterbrain (Fire)

2015’s album Silver Bullets was a good start for The Chills second career and 2018’s Snowbound was very well received. We are now at the difficult third album stage for a band whose first career was all about making things difficult for themselves.

In particular, Martin Phillipps, whose life was beset by the many personal challenges documented in 2019’s insightful documentary The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps. The good news is that  the third album of the second career, Scatterbrain, is a consistent and distinctive album that is a great thirty minutes of hooky pop rock.

The Chills
The Chills at The Powerstation. 15 May 2021. Photo by Ivan Karczewski

In their earlier career The Chills gave The Fall a run for their money in terms of the turnover of members but there is now a very settled band membership. Todd Knutson (drums), Dr Oli Wilson (keyboards and harpsichord) and Erica Scally (guitar, keyboards and violin) have all been in the band at least ten years, with just Callum Hampton (bass and brass) as a new recruit. Together with producer Tom Healy the band combine to create atmospheric soundscapes that suit Phillips direct lyrics and distinctive vocal melodies.

On this album Phillipps’ lyrics confront big themes such as his own and others mortality, how we live and die and to what extent we are in control of our lives. The first track is  the bouncy Monolith about the value of ancient wisdom and knowledge. It has a singalong refrain “Give me the power of ancient stones, honour the monolith”  and a wonderful video by Jonny Sanders. The video humorously places the lyrics in 1970’s style newspaper adverts and articles about knowledge and wisdom coming from visitors from other planets.

Many of the tracks have a slower pulse than we associate with The Chills. Hourglass is based on a picked guitar chord and Phillipps pondering the passing of time and whether it speeds up as we get older, “Do the years fly by. Only when we are counting.” The rising intensity of the music adds to the feeling of time passing by quickly. In Destiny, Phillipps considers his ability to makes choices  and his own mortality “I know I won’t avoid the void eternally.” The slow, smooth textures of guitars, keyboards and drums soften the bleakness of these lyrics to give it a dramatic lullaby quality.

For the piano led Caught In My Eye the music matches the sentiments of Philipps lyrics about restraining his own emotional response, “I won’t cry. There must be something caught in my eye,”  The song is about receiving the phone news of the death of his mother.  He muses on what could have been, things they might have said to each other and the every day things they can no longer talk to each other about. This simple direct song powerfully captures many of the thoughts and feelings that occur when a close family member dies.

You’re Immortal is baroque pop with swelling keyboards, rising drum beats and vibrant brass which build tension between each verse. The lyrics recount feelings of loss and missed opportunities. The sad themes are developed with “I can only grieve” and end “I feel nothing but despair.”

Little Alien starts with loud, driving drums and guitars. Phillipps voice then takes over, as the song gradually builds in intensity and drama. This is also a song about an ending, this time collectively, as Phillipps asks “are you the last of your own tragic race?” The song ends positively with the repeated encouragement to “battle on little alien.”

Safe and Sound’s distorted instruments create an eerie unsettling effect suited to the almost whispered lyrics of how outside it is “…cold and bright…still and weight.” Home is described as “safe and sound tonight” but the musical mayhem undercuts this and leaves you feeling that home is not a permanently comfortable place. Worlds Within Worlds quickly establishes a fast exciting rhythm. Blasts of the trumpet emphasize the lyrics “inspire you….. surprise you … aspire to” and the repetition of the title as the chorus.

Title track Scatterbrain is boisterous and disorientating and built on a distorted drum beat. The stop start momentum adds to the feeling of confusion and urgency as Phillipps sings of “…feeling frustration. Deliberate confusion and misinformation.” The lyrics repeatedly asks “is this what you wanted?”

The album ends with the dramatic The Walls Beyond Abandon which has fragile and neurotic guitars and keyboard that match the paranoid lyrics about being tailed by secret agents and finding the new messiah.

Though predominantly slower paced than much of their earlier work it is recognizably The Chills sound with jangling guitars, driving bass and drums and great melodies. The use of instruments such as violin. trumpet and harpsichord add depth and indicate the greater trust of Phillipps for his band mates as well as their skills.

The lyrics clearly articulate Phillipps facing up to some of the important questions that become bigger and more urgent as we get older. The Guardian’s review of the documentary said “it’s about artistic integrity, self-realisation, self-acceptance and a reflection on mortality” and we can say the same of this album. It also has great songs to add to The Chills legacy that will serve us well until their next album.

John Bradbury