It’s hard to think of an artist who has changed up their sound as much as Daniel Johns has over the past 20 years. In 1995, at just 15 years old he shot to fame as the lead singer of Silverchair. Sounding far older and writing songs with depth and maturity far beyond their years, the band often drew comparisons to Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but after a few years of success in the genre Johns was ready to explore new territory.
Daniel Johns led Silverchair away from their grunge roots and dove in to more intricate, elaborate, and expansive forms of instrumentation and songwriting. The resulting albums, 1999’s Neon Ballroom, 2002’s Diorama, and 2008’s Young Modern all garnered critical praise, but increasingly drove away many of the band’s original fans who were put off by Johns’ tendency for flamboyant musical experimentation.
Now, on his solo debut Talk, remnants of Johns’ heavy rock days are all but non-existent as he trades in his guitars for synths. For many of his remaining longtime fans that may be a deal breaker, but there’s a solid collection of songs to be found for those who are willing to reserve judgment.
Johns wastes no time reintroducing himself as an artist; the change is jarring from the very first note. It’s almost impossible to wrap your mind around the fact that the voice that once growled out Neon Ballroom’s animal rights anthem “Spawn (Again)” is the same voice that’s now seductively singing the opening lines of “Aerial Love.”
Die-hard fans will definitely want to check out “Going On 16.” Hidden in the middle of the album is the track that first made its appearance during a string of Groovin’ The Moo shows in Australia in 2010. When Silverchair announced their split in 2011 many fans wondered what would become of the tracks the band had been working on…and now we know, at least when it comes to “Going On 16.” As it turns out, not much happened to it- the song sounds remarkably similar to the live version that circulated five years ago.
Another song longtime fans will undoubtedly appreciate is the Diorama-esque “New York.” With its cinematic soundscape the song could easily stand alongside classics such as “Across The Night” or “After All These Years” and could serve as the perfect bridge for those still on the fence about Johns’ new direction.
Perhaps the strongest track in this collection is one that’s buried deep in the album. Of all the tracks “Preach” seems to best balance all of the elements that Johns is trying to juggle and there’s an element of urgency and conviction in “Preach” that isn’t really found elsewhere on the album.
“Cool On Fire” has an energetic dance-y vibe and “Going On 16” has the vocal sass, but “Preach” is the only track in which we hear Johns really belting out lyrics against a musical backdrop that packs an equal punch. The other upbeat tracks have a drifty, weightless element to them, and “Preach” is anything but weightless.
Although the entire album is heavy on the synths and electronics, that’s not to say it’s a homogenized record. Johns spends much of the album flipping back and forth between pop and R&B-style songs. Musically, he seems far stronger in the pop category, but if single choices are any indication (thus far he’s released videos for “Aerial Love” and “Cool on Fire”) he seems to favor the R&B side of the album.
For now it seems Johns isn’t quite clear which direction he wants to go. Time will tell, although anyone who has followed Daniel Johns’ 20-year career would probably agree that wherever he goes, the final product will be one that longtime fans and new ones alike can find something to love.