At one point during the writing of Silverchair’s third album, frontman Daniel Johns’ struggle with anorexia nervosa was so severe his weight dropped to 50 kilograms. Wracked with anxiety following the band’s rapid rise to stardom as teenagers, Johns entered the final year of his teens physically and mentally unwell, having spent six months shut off from the world, too anxious even to leave his house. Not surprisingly, with the exception of first single “Anthem for the Year 2000”, Neon Ballroom is almost singularly informed by Johns’ psychological state.
Despite these circumstances—and Johns’ admission that while writing the album he’d fallen out of love with music—he succeeded in creating a record that saw Silverchair start to carve out their own identity. In many ways it’s the bridge between their first two LPs, the Seattle- and Black Sabbath-indebted Frogstomp (1995) and Freak Show (1997), and the increasingly experimental sounds they’d toy with on 2002’s Diorama and 2007’s Young Modern.
Recorded with producer Nick Launay over seven weeks (compared with the nine days it took to record Frogstomp), the album makes it clear within the first seven seconds of opener “Emotion Sickness” that Silverchair are no longer content to trade off the back of their musical heroes. A song about trying to escape mental health issues without the use of medication—by way of contrast, in the Zeppelin-esque “Paint Pastel Princess”, Johns uses antidepressants as a metaphor for a saviour—it’s a majestic, six-minute-long triumph of lush orchestration, labyrinthine musical passages and chaotic piano courtesy of concert pianist David Helfgott. Its nightmarish lyrics (“Distorted eyes when everything is clearly dying”) are a perfectly matched, pain-riddled partner for its kaleidoscopic musical ambition. While it’s easily the most adventurous song on Neon Ballroom, the spirit of experimentation ripples throughout. Even when treading familiar musical ground—the pulsing metal of “Anthem for the Year 2000”, the punk fury of “Satin Sheets”—there is a twist, whether it be the eerie soundscapes and choral backing that envelop the former or the stabs of electronica in the latter.
Arguably the album’s most emotional moment is “Ana’s Song (Open Fire)”, in which Johns addresses his eating disorder (“Ana wrecks your life/Like an anorexia life”) over a brooding verse that explodes into a chorus so anthemic it suggests maybe there is hope somewhere off in the distance. The string-laden ballad “Miss You Love”, by way of contrast, is a love song about not being in love, and not even caring about love.