Bands I Used To Love is a segment where we talk about old flames: the music we used to love as younger people. Our middle school favs, our first albums, our angsty high school heroes. For whatever reason, these bands fell out of our rotation. Sometimes they’re embarrassing, sometimes they make us feel like we were pretty cool back then. Either way, old heroes reveal a lot about a person, and the reason they’re gone tells us even more.
The Band: Silverchair
Why I Liked Them
If you’re a music fan of a certain generation, Silverchair is the name of some forgotten, shameless Nirvana rip-off from the 90s. That’s not wrong. It’s hard to listen to their breakout album Frogstomp, even as a supporter, and think that it has an original leg to stand on. Its international success is definitely a product of people hungering for the grunge that Nirvana had taught us to love.
But if you’re a little younger and watched MTV’s music video countdown show “Total Request Live” in its early days, Silverchair was one of a handful of alt-rock bands that got consistent placement. The secret weapon was “Ana’s Song (Open Fire)” and its intriguing video that features leadsinger Daniel Johns wheeling himself around in a wheelchair.
It was about his battle with anorexia, and among its TRL contemporaries, that’s a startlingly honest and real thing to talk about. “Ana’s Song” was also their way out of the Nirvana mold — Johns seemed to find his legs in the sort of mainstream radio rock & roll that was home to the Goo Goo Dolls, Semisonic and their ilk. Silverchair was the band I liked to seem mature. If you said you liked Blink 182, people would think you liked simple pop stuff. But if you say you liked Blink and Silverchair, well, surely you were a 13 year old of taste and stature.
Once they got out of their Nirvana phase, Silverchair started to make epic, grand ballroom music. On their follow-up Diorama they worked with elaborate orchestral movements that sounded more grandiose than anything I could’ve imagined as a tween. Granted, my only other exposure to violin & rock music was Metallica doing a thing with the San Francisco Symphony. Try listening to “Tuna in the Brine” and call that a Nirvana rip-off.
At some point I became aware of what “good lyrics” were and tried applying that principal to Silverchair. Silverchair songs were wordy, for sure. But they denied any strong emotional connection due to their utterly distant writing. As a young person I assumed I just wasn’t smart enough to understand them, and I suddenly began to suspect that maybe they were at best, writing so internally that it comes off as obscure and inaccessible, and at worst, just kinda random.
But that was okay. Not everyone has to be Townes Van Zandt. You can enjoy a band purely for their non-vocal qualities. But I entered a phase where I wanted both of those things. I wanted more artists that could tell me a story that required some work, but not mind-reading powers.
Eventually Silverchair went on hiatus and that was just as well.
It sounds like middle of the road, parallel-to-the-grain rock music, and maybe that’s just the fate of all counter cultures.
There is still no denying the huge size of these Diorama songs. The alternative of the 90s and early 00s is a puzzling thing because it doesn’t sound alternative at all. The lyrics are still opaque and it feels like that mystery is unsupported. It still feels like they’re written more concerned with sounding literary than making literature. Like, look at this stuff. I’m sure this is perfectly cogent in Daniel Johns’ mind but for those of us outside of it, it’s more than a difficult task to connect to; it’s a futile task not worth the effort.
But overall, is Diorama bad? It’s hard to say it is. The music is really that impressive. It succeeds despite the gnawing, absent lyricism. It still has great choruses and ornate instrumentation that feels polished, important and dramatic. I can’t totally knock Diorama as a net negative because, especially in 2002, it’s an effective, big statement album. It feels like a real auteur opus; a complete creative mission accomplished. He just happens to write obtuse words.