Going back to the Nineties again for today, let’s hit something obscure. The Chills may well be one of the more successful bands from New Zealand, key figures in the promotion of the Dunedin sound, but that doesn’t make them well-known by any stretch of the imagination.
Today’s song comes from Submarine Bells, their second proper album and first international release—through Slash records of Warner Bros. It’s the one my friend Tim played for me some time around then, which I taped (I’m happy to say I’ve since acquired it on both CD and vinyl), and today’s song graced the first proper tape I made Kajsa, not counting a one-off when she was in 5th grade. “Strange Changes and Everything” inaugurated her teens at the end of 7th grade, 20 years ago.
She became a fan of Martin Phillips and The Chills. Phillips is the vocalist, songwriter, and only permanent member of this amorphous band. Submarine Bells and its follow-up The Soft Bomb (1992) are little early Nineties gems, the kind of music that slots in well with current stuff like R.E.M. and bands like The dBs and Yo La Tengo and Flaming Lips, as well as more “classic” stuff like The Buzzcocks, VU, and of course the Mekons. And it doesn’t rub up badly against Sixties psychedelia either, and that whole Paisley Underground bit. In her high school years, I got her the two early albums—Kaleidoscope World (1986), a collection of their singles and such, and Brave Words (1987) to make her fandom as complete as I could.
The Chills sound isn’t, recording-wise, as fully ramped up as much music is in the mp3-listening world. The production values are a bit lo-fi, part of that alt world we all once basked in as the Eighties bled away into the Nineties. Phillips’ arrangements, though, can be bouncy or moody. There’s jangle aplenty, also keyboards—at times adding a bit of ambience. His lyrics are always very literate, which means they can be a bit wordy and it's tough sometimes to get all that he’s saying.
Today’s song is a case in point. Until I got the CD I really wasn’t too sure of the words but, as with early R.E.M., that didn’t really matter. Such was a goad to enjoyment. I loved the spike of “I’ll let the oncoming day say it for me.” I can’t tell you how much of a kick I got from that part.
The thing I liked about what I got from the song is that there’s fear of the oncoming day—“Some days I say will I give in / to the oncoming day”—which, indeed, is how I often felt about it. But the verse that ends with the line quoted above is worth quoting in full: “I think of words to tell you / I find nothing fine enough to say / Nothing worth anything—nothing worth nothing / Nothing left in this lump of grey / That even vaguely says ‘I love you’ / In a way that please me / So I’ll let the oncoming day say it for me.”
That’s for when you’re just out of words, out of ideas. As Lear says (I think): “Well, well, th’event.” Let’s see what shows up, let’s watch what happens. Why even try to talk about it ahead of time? “There will be rain tonight.” “Let it come down!” (that’s Macbeth.)
I loved that “that even vaguely says I love you in a way that pleases me.” In a way, all the tapes made were just ways to say “I love you” in a way that pleases me. Letting the oncoming tunes say it for me. “Trying to explain myself in a song for you.” With the real key—where KDB was concerned—being “No one / No one / No one can take your memory away from me.” Her memory to me—all 13 years of it by then—was all very precious, so, yeah, the “oncoming day” was the teen years, y’know?
And I think it was the line “When I was young I used to watch TV” that she got a charge from, in her memory of those pre-teen years.
It’s a song that just keeps kicking and ripping along. As I used to say to K: in a better world, this song would’ve been a radio hit. But we don’t live in that world. So we played tapes and not the radio. If you learn the words to this song and sing along you may find—as we did—real pleasure simply in the words you get to sing: “The shadows of the leaves on the wall shiver / In a vivid twisted frame of grey.”
Phillips is always a bit morose too (which suits us), but his melodies are mostly buoyant. Nice trick.
And, as rhetorical questions go, there are few more probing than: Is sustaining past illusion just insanity?
I suppose the oncoming day will answer that question, sooner or later. What else is it good for?