Album Review: Daniel Johns, ‘Talk’
It’s been four years since frontman Daniel Johns parted ways with his ‘90s grunge outfit Silverchair and scrapped what would’ve been the band’s sixth album. And if you’re keeping count, it’s been eight years since the Australian three-piece released their final full-length, Young Modern, and -- somewhat unbelievably -- 20 years since they dropped their debut, Frogstomp. Now, Johns has reemerged as a solo artist with his inaugural LP, Talk, and with it, the singer-songwriter seems dead-set on burying his past as a one-time grunge icon.
In reality, such has been the case for a while now. As Silverchair progressed, it was clear Johns was determined to take him and his bandmates -- bassist Chris Joannou and drummer Ben Gillies -- in more experimental directions. In fact, it was those very motivations that helped seal the band’s fate, culminating with their 2011 breakup.
Even before Silverchair disbanded, Johns wasn’t exactly masking the fact he was actively distancing himself from his past. His side project with DJ Paul Mac, the Dissociatives, announced as much with their 2004 self-titled, electro-rock LP, but Johns even more concisely proclaimed his intentions with their aptly titled I Can’t Believe It’s Not Rock EP in 2000.
Prior to showcasing his newfound R&B and soul inclinations on his Aerial Love EP earlier this year, Johns seemed to perfectly summarize his crossroads when he covered Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at Triple J’s Beat the Drum festival in Sydney. The guy who was once described as a young Kurt Cobain was now transforming the band’s definitive hit into a soulful ballad with piano and harp, essentially making the statement: “I’m not who you thought I was.” Now, Johns more eloquently conveys that in “Aerial Love” -- which appears as Talk's opening track -- singing, “Change my old ways / Take a piece of the future.”
On Talk, Johns is nearly unrecognizable. He adopts an unwavering falsetto throughout, setting it to slinky and moody synths and blippy beats. While there may be a new generation of bands channeling Silverchair’s ‘90s grunge, Johns looks to contemporaries like James Blake and Frank Ocean for inspiration rather than his former band.
And he accomplishes it all with a series of smart collaborations. For his solo debut, Johns teamed up with producer Joel Little, who helped propel New Zealand singer Lorde into superstardom with her own breakthrough debut, Pure Heroine, in 2013. Little helps give Talk tracks, “Aerial Love,” “Too Many” and “Warm Hands” the same kind of R&B cadence and packages it with a pop sheen.
Johns also recruited Australian synth-pop outfit the Presets’ Julian Hamilton on Talk’s “By Your Side” and “Dissolve,” two standout tracks that act as infectious and anthemic bookends to one another. Likewise, the ex-Silverchair leader worked with producers Styalz and M-Phazes (“Imagination,” “Chained” and “Faithless”) to infuse the whole thing with elements of hip-hop. In all, Johns’ partnerships are well-placed and serve him well in defining his latest incarnation.
That’s not to say Talk isn’t without its stumbles. Fifteen tracks long (and Johns says the LP was whittled down from what could have been a double album), you get the sense Johns was trying just about everything and anything. He succeeds when there's a well-honed focus to his experimentation, but at other times, it seems a bit contrived. Such is the case with “We Are Golden”’s buzzing synths and discord, serving no real purpose other than distracting from an album that is otherwise cohesive and resolved in its compelling brand of alternative R&B.