The fifteen-year-old mall rats who recorded Silverchair’s mid-Nineties debut, Frogstomp, got plenty of flak from folks who couldn’t get beyond the band’s preoccupation with Pearl Jam, Nirvana and, later, Radiohead. But behind the loud-soft dynamics of the music and frontman Daniel Johns’ warbled, Eddie Vedder vocals, the songs sounded earnest if not all that original. Silverchair may have copied their heroes, but they seemed sincere about their passion for the music. Diorama, Silverchair’s fourth studio album, is a different story. Now in their early twenties, Johns and company have become genuine artists on their own terms. Heavy orchestration, unpredictable melodic shifts and a whimsical pop sensibility give Diorama the sweeping feel of the work of Brian Wilson or Todd Rundgren. Silverchair even brought in Wilson’s eccentric partner in crime, the string arranger Van Dyke Parks, to give the music more breadth and depth.
Johns’ much-improved vocals and flair for the theatrical complement his new, more inventive guitar style. Clearly he trusts his own instincts today, and it pays off in complex beauties such as the melancholic, Beach Boys-ish “World Upon Your Shoulders,” the enigmatic “Tuna in the Brine” and the stately closer, “After All These Years.” In the latter, Johns seems to question his earlier modus operandi: “Playing like a scared, enthusiastic pawn. . . . All those years I was hurting to feel something more than life.” Only when he loses this newfound confidence do Silverchair’s old habits slip to the surface, such as in the chorus of “”Without You,”” which relies on a pseudodramatic, MTV-approved hook. But for the most part, Diorama gets better with each listen.