“It’s about deleting yourself and starting again,” Daniel Johns recently told Triple J’s Richard Kingsmill, when prompted about a particularly cryptic metaphor on the former Silverchair frontman’s full-length solo debut, Talk – “I burn the house down that your jewels were buried in“.
Taken from the track ‘Imagination’, the mysterious line, one of many on an album swathed in unique lyrical choices as though written in its own cypher, is about “scrapping everything you’re familiar with and rebuilding from there”, Johns elaborates.
However, while Johns might argue that Talk is the result of a radical slate-wiping, astute listeners will know that the album is covered in the fingerprints of a life spent in music, from his time in Australia’s biggest rock band, to 2004’s The Dissociatives with Paul Mac.
Sure, the album swaps roaring guitars for gliding synths, guttural cries for sticky falsettos, teen angst, which Johns had long abandoned anyway, for drum machines, but Talk is the logical culmination of the homegrown hero’s legacy thus far.
By Johns’ own admission, he forced himself to abandon his old song-making tools for the new album, and the result is an album that’s experimental without being overly indulgent. Johns is a masterful songsmith and understands the balance between artistic freedom and a listener’s patience.
Talk is, for all intents and purposes, a pop work, and it retains many of the hallmarks that made albums like 2002’s Diorama and 2007’s Young Modern Australian classics, including Johns’ knack for melody and his engrossing sense of grandeur.
When Johns is left to his own devices, as he was on the preceding Aerial Love EP, his ability to take everyone’s mundane neuroses and blow them up to cinematic proportions is given enough of a canvas to become fully actualised.
The album has been touted by many as another exponent of the new wave of soul that’s been scaling the charts in recent years, a movement comprised of artists like Frank Ocean, Chet Faker, and The Weeknd, and there’s some truth to this too.
Indeed, it’s with Ocean where the closest parallel can be drawn. Both men have an ability to take the personal and make it stately, but Johns is far more cryptic and ambiguous than Ocean, who relies on symbolism rather than metaphor. Of course, Johns is a musician first and foremost, and not a writer.
On tracks like ‘Preach’, Johns plays soul in the truest sense of the term. That is, gospel music with secular lyrics. However, even when Talk is at its least tuneful and grandiose, such as on ‘We Are Golden’, ‘Sleepwalker’, and ‘Good Luck’, it’s always soulful.
Not all of Johns’ experimentation yields results as scintillating as the aforementioned tracks, however. ‘Going on 16’ comes off like Johns trying to throw electro at the wall and not having much of anything stick, while ‘New York’ persists with a blunt and uninspired chorus.
At times, too, it seems as though Johns is simply too sentimental for his own good. The album never seems to wallow, but one yearns for the kind of charisma and humour that Johns has shown he is capable of in press and interviews.
Talk is the concentrated effort of a veteran songwriter and a bonafide icon of the Australian music scene at his most liberated and creatively switched on. While it will likely further alienate old-school Silverchair fans, it puts Johns in a modern context and could well introduce him to an entirely new audience.
Whether the album assumes as integral a place in the canon of Australian popular music as his work with Silverchair is unlikely, but this is more a testament to what that band achieved than the merits of Talk. That said, John’s solo debut is an intriguing, puzzling, and at-times utterly sublime listen.
Daniel Johns’ debut solo album, ‘Talk’, is out Friday, 22nd May via Universal Music. Johns will be performing as part of Vivid LIVE at the Sydney Opera House this month.