The Chills’ story is strewn with death, breakdowns and bad luck. Their first three singles – Rolling Moon, Pink Frost and Doledrums – combined west-coast psychedelia, primitive garage rock and a knack for great pop tunes so effortlessly that they bear comparison with the best three singles from any band. The only problem is that the other material wasn’t nearly as strong; this inconsistency was compounded by a revolving line-up, which meant that many years passed until The Chills lived up to their early promise.
Reading The Chills’ potted biography, we learn that “The Chills story is as much the story of Martin Phillipps”. It wasn’t until 1995, however, that the band became known as Martin Phillipps and The Chills; the following year saw the release of The Chills’ greatest album – in fact, their one truly great album so far – Sunburnt.
I’ve talked about the varying merits of The Chills’ output over the years with a number of people. All of them, with one exception, have picked either Brave Words or Submarine Bells as their best album; Roger Shepherd, founder of Flying Nun, who I spoke to at a gig in London a few years ago, was absolutely certain that Sunburnt was by some distance Martin Phillipps’ greatest effort.
Another of The Chills’ former label bosses, Alan McGee, writing in The Guardian a couple of weeks ago, said, “It was in 1991 that I realised how utterly classic and timeless the Chills are.” A shame he didn’t recognise The Chills’ classic or timeless qualities when he was promoting them; it’s surprising, perhaps, that McGee doesn’t talk about Sunburnt in his article, because as an emotionally racked, tortured and tormented masterpiece it surpasses any one of McGee’s traditional triumvirate of doomed lost pop classics: The Painted Word, Pink Moon and Sister Lovers.
Sunburnt is the point in The Chills’ history where all of Phillips’ strengths – throwaway pop chants, snappy garage rock, soaring harmonies, lysergic gloom and sweet despair – coalesce.
In songs like Surrounded and Premonition a powerful sense of claustrophobia and paranoia pervade; Lost In Future Ruins is the sound of a should-be legend resigned to a footnote in history rather than lasting fame:
Oh sweetie could you please not play that music
I’m not in a sentimental mood…
It appears that time has moved on without me
Like a toy that disappeared for good
This feeling is reinforced by the title track of Phillipps’ first album since being dropped by Warners. When he sings “I climbed on a mountain then fell on the land,” he’s referring to the post-Warners stress of being label-less, no longer being invited to Madonna’s parties and the day he went up a mountain with three tape recorders to find inspiration to write new songs, only for all of the tape recorders to break down within half an hour of each other. Apparently, Phillipps’ breakdown followed.
Eight years after Sunburnt, a strong set came in Stand By; encouragingly, Phillips is writing new material. A number of new songs, including Ticking Timebomb, were performed in Dunedin recently. Now, will someone get that man in a recording studio? Thanks.