New Zealand band The Chills released their first album, Kaleidoscope World, in 1986. Chalk full of pacey tunes and cult themes, it rocked the world. Nearly forty years on, in 2021, their seventh studio album, Scatterbrain, is a testament to the band’s longevity and capacity to maintain their style, without being overly dull or anchored in repetitive beats or noises. Martin Phillipps, the driver behind the band, writes thematically powerful songs such as “Monolith” and “Worlds Within Worlds” in skeletally thin lyrics within this small album.
Leave it up to a New Zealand-based band to write an album brimming with unique tones. Each song features differing sets of instruments, keeping the album from overreliance on a certain sound. From the brass and drums of “You’re Immortal” to the soft percussions of “Safe and Sound,” Scatterbrain offers up a collection of differing soundscapes in the most Dunedin fashion—The Chills are styled as one of the founding bands of Dunedin sound, a droning, jangling style of indie pop hailing from the city Dunedin in southern New Zealand. The title track “Scatterbrain” is a reverberating, psychedelic masterpiece that lives up to its name while the follow up song, “The Walls Beyond Abandon,” meshes triumphal trumpets with despairing lyrics like honey and lemon.
“And I don’t care how brave you are / No one escapes the walls beyond abandon,” Phillipps sings. Perhaps the album’s greatest feature, as is customary for this kiwi band, is the themes. The lyrics are often dark and cultish, linking them to other groups like Arcade Fire. “Dark times, nothing left to say / Black holes, draining all the light away,” begins the acoustic “Hourglass”. Phillipps and company layout themes of loss and hopelessness while remaining steadily optimistic. The repetition of the choruses makes for sombre listening, but Phillipps always manages to pick it back up with an off-the-rails verse or letting the instruments do the talking.
At first listen, it’s easy to disregard the album as a flailing attempt to recreate elements of past tracks and formulas, but that is wildly simplistic. Yes, Scatterbrain does require a bit of an earworm for the repetitions to catch on; once that occurs, however, everything else just bounces and buzzes around your head like fireflies at night. Coming in at just 31 minutes over 10 tracks, this album is not quite so grandiose as most other albums in the band’s discography, but each second is jammed with intensity, zipping from confusion to sensible to positively energising. “So logic is over, simplification / no room for repeating, and no illustration,” Phillipps sings on “Scatterbrain,” coupled with the maddening drones like a warning about the experience of being dreamy.
As someone who has experienced many struggles and tragedy in his life, no one can begrudge Phillipps for creating an album so timidly positive it’s ominous and dark—Phillipps lost a friend to leukemia and has struggled with hepatitis C. The truth of the matter is this is a brilliantly peculiar album, fitting The Chills style perfectly yet feels fresh and vibrant. Scatterbrain is a testament to the group’s timelessness and ability to create works of art over several decades without ever losing touch of who they or going stale.