The Chills – Snow Bound
If, on ‘The Blue Hour’, Suede made a record of monumental bleak sensuality then The Chills, on ‘Snow Bound’ have made a record of concise charming frustration. With every song clocking in under four minutes the whole album is almost half the length of Suede’s and whilst each is the correct length for its personal context, I cannot help but be drawn more to The Chills for playing firmly to the Popism rule of brevity. (At this points critics of the Unpopular writing style might well roll their eyes and wish said rule were applied here, but what are rules for if not to be twisted and broken?)
The frustration at play in the songs on ‘Snow Bound’ is that of both personal reflection and a wider, more global viewpoint. On ‘Easy Peazy’ Phillipps sings that “we shared great days / which somehow we fumbled / and then could do nothing / but watch as it crumbled” and one is not entirely certain if he is singing about his own group’s past or of a broader generational guilt. Perhaps both. Perhaps neither. Elsewhere Phillipps sings of making mistakes and causing heart-aches before suggesting that it is “time to atone”. Again, it’s ambiguous as to whether he means this personally or globally. Again, perhaps neither but probably both. This notion of being collectively, as humanity, both culpable for our self-destruction and the potential saviours was certainly firmly in place on The Chills’ previous set ‘Silver Bullets’ and those threads pull forwards into ‘Snow Bound’. Here is anger tempered by love; desperation softened by optimism. And after all, if there is any group more masterful than The Chills in making darkness sound bright, breezy and multi-coloured then I have yet to find it.
Part of the brilliance of The Chills is that there has always been something of the nursery rhyme or advertising jingle to many of Phillipps’ songs (‘Bee Bah Bee Bah Bee Bow’ might be the prime example of the former, ‘There’s Only One Station’ or ‘Always Time For Coca-Cola’ physical examples of the latter). This might just be the most perfect Pop Art compliment . Phillipps certainly has an ear for a hook both musically and lyrically and is adept at resisting the temptation to insert variations, instead making the most of perfect simplicity and pushing repetition to hang teetering on the fine line between delight and irritation. ‘Snow Bound’ then rattles along like the staccato Bam! Bam! Bam! of a Batman comic or of pellets on tin targets in a fairground shooting range. Roll up! Roll up! Hear the Geeks and their Far Out Pop Sounds!
Picking out a favourite from the swirling array of candy floss colours is tough but today I cannot see further than opener ‘Bad Sugar’ in that it so perfectly sets the tone both lyrically and musically for the rest of the set to follow. ‘Bad Sugar’ is a deceptively lovely song that explores the darkness of our times. In the opening verse Phillipps apparently sets out the progressive’s stall, describing “a herd of humans… hauling old convictions” and raising them “like a flag” whilst “we watch as they wind the clock back”. Yet this is Phillipps intentionally falling into the language trap because immediately we are into a chorus where the writer acknowledges: “But then I’m wrong – I know I’m wrong / It’s just people and how they get along” before recognising that to those “feeling down-beat”, “even bad sugar makes bitter taste sweet”. It’s this seam of deep love for a humanity that he/‘we’ simultaneously despair of that sets The Chills apart from most. Like the best Warhol screen prints, Phillipps goes on to repeat the form of frustration in a different combination of the same dark palette before juxtaposing again and again with the dazzling hues of (just about) hope. “Bad sugar makes bitter taste sweet” goes the jingle. So simply put. So eloquently executed. I’ll buy it.