The Chills – Soft Bomb

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

The Chills are one of those snake-bit bands that your heart goes out to. Now, with indie-pop’s place in the music world being what it is, I seriously doubt that avoiding all the bad luck that plagued the band would have made much of a difference in terms of their relative success. This band was not destined for Red Hot Chili Peppers degrees of fame and fortune (not that I could have foreseen that band’s popularity either, though). Formed in 1980, the band almost immediately hit a setback with the illness and death of their drummer shortly after their first single broke (he was immortalized in their subsequent song, “I Love My Leather Jacket”). A revolving door of personnel prevented the band from developing momentum, but nonetheless, the Chills hit their strongest period in the late 1980s, culminating with a worldwide record deal in 1990 and the release of Submarine Bells and Soft Bomb. The label pulled financial backing and promotion for Soft Bomb while the band was touring. Martin Phillips eked out Sunburnt in 1996, and after that, the band basically stopped existing; Phillips dealt with drug addiction and related hepatitis. There was no proper release until 2004, and then the band was essentially silent again until 2015 – a gap of eleven years. Another album followed in 2018 and then in 2021.

What I Think of This Album

A lot of people think this is not as strong an album as Submarine Bells, but it is the album I listen to more. It’s a bit more uptempo and guitar-based, and the band takes some interesting chances.

A Byrdsy guitar makes the startlingly self-aware (and self-loathing) “The Male Monster From the Id,” go down smoothly, a clever way of getting indie dudes to sing along to an acknowledgment of their own worst qualities. The title track is a jangle-pop masterpiece (and namechecks fellow Kiwis, the Clean (for whom Phillips has provided vocals before)); this song likely details Phillips’s musical frustrations, but it sounds deceptively bright and cheerful.

A classic, optimistic love song is what “Double Summer” provides, with a choppy piano part, arpeggiated guitar, and ropy bass line. Meanwhile, “Halo Fading” has beautifully delicate guitar work and another charming and humane vocal performance from Phillips; the production and arrangement on this song are phenomenal, with excellent piano and violin contributions.

“Soft Bomb II” (bearing no relationship to “Soft Bomb.” Or to “Soft Bomb III,” for that matter) is supremely tuneful and propulsive, and continues the album’s obsession with duality and contradiction, advocating a “kill them with kindness” approach. Any of those tracks is worth the price of admission, frankly, but Phillips is far too talented to only give you five gems on a seventeen song album.

Additional highlights include the thickly riffy “Background Affair” – Manichean to its core – which is a bit repetitive but the recurrence enhances the menacing atmosphere, and Phillips’s NZ accent is appealingly pronounced during this tune. “Song for Randy Newman Etc.” is a piano ballad, both grandiose and self-pitying – Phillips not only casts Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, Scott Walker, and Nick Drake as victims of an uncaring public and their own compulsions, but also suggests that he is one of their brethren – not surprisingly, he makes it work through sheer tunefulness and a shameless earnestness that somehow manages to not be off-putting.

Phillips’s conflicted feelings are most starkly presented on the dueling tidbits, “There Is No Harm In Trying” and “There Is No Point In Trying.” The titles are the entire lyrical content of these pieces (each under 40 seconds long), in case you were confused about what Phillips is seeking to communicate. Pure filler, but they sound pretty good. For that matter, “Soft Bomb III” (we were going to get to it eventually) likewise does not extend its vocabulary beyond the words of the title, but sounds super-cool. At some point, it almost gets annoying that Phillips had these melodies at the ready and didn’t do more with them.

Lament-filled “So Long” is brittle and folky but engaging, with Phillips’s warm voice pulling together the violin and dobro that decorate the song. “Ocean Ocean” succeeds nicely as allegory allegory.

What doesn’t work:  the super-pretentious, never-ending “Water Wolves,” a collaboration with Van Dyke Parks. “Strange Case,” about a damaged soldier of fortune (is there any other kind?), is unsettling and weirdly sanctimonious. “Sleeping Giants” is basically two songs in one, and would have worked better as just the (more rockin’) second half, which boasts a nimble bass part but lacks the melody found in a lot of other songs here. Phillips made the odd choice of marrying a tale of domestic abuse to a jazzy arrangement in “Sanctuary,” and it sounds terrible, honestly. Likewise, “Entertainer” is spare and self-lacerating, serving as the antithesis to the self-aggrandizement of “Song for Randy Newman Etc.” that we didn’t ask for. These are exceedingly minor complaints – this is an excellent album.

Early bassist Terry Moore returned for this effort. dB Peter Holsapple plays guitars, keyboard, and violin, and the itinerant Lisa Mednick (Half Japanese, Alejandro Escovedo, Michelle Shocked) adds keyboards, accordion, and vocals. The producer was Gavin McKillop.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Soft Bomb,” but it’s hard to go wrong with several other songs here.

Release Date

June, 1992

The Cover Art

Things I like: everything relating to the band name and album title – font choice, color, composition, size. Things I like less:  the actual art, which is actual art – a photograph (possibly a painted photograph) by Dutch multi-disciplinary artist Teun Hocks that has a spooky fairy tale vibe to it.

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