In Hollywood, the factory of American icons, all that glitters isn’t gold – some are better suited to settle for silver. In fact, some are physically built for it, as in the case of Chip Chrome, the muse/ruse of a character inhabited by frontman Jesse Rutherford of The Neighbourhood for the band’s latest album, Chip Chrome & The Mono-Tones.
The Neighbourhood’s first hit, 2012’s “Sweater Weather,” provided the band with both a lasting cultural impact (as the Urban Dictionary reports, “Sweater Weather” has become the reigning bisexual anthem) and the sticky stigma of the one hit wonder. Their first three albums, based in woozy angst and black and white filters, remained thematically consistent with this early single, but none of their subsequent work could recapture the zeitgeist to the same extent. This fourth project finally considers a new perspective – that of the striving performer, a lens which automatically invites autobiographical speculation. Chip Chrome & The Mono-Tones examines Rutherford’s reality through the lens of character in a refreshing reimagining of the band’s core sounds and themes.
Part pantomime, part avatar, and part mirror, Chip Chrome makes for a compellingly gaudy persona. The inherent unnaturalness of a silver man makes sci-fi connotations implicit in the music. Retro-futurism flavors the production of the record, which channels campy movie scenes of outer space and time travel. Nostalgia and uncertainty blend, equal parts reassuring and eerie. Title tracks “Chip Chrome” and “The Mono-Tones” divide the record into two sections. The first half, under “Chip Chrome,” is almost solipsistic in its philosophy. Rutherford speaks in riddles, most pronouncedly on the whirling, rhythmic “Devil’s Advocate,” which weaves together carelessly ominous ambiguities into a psychedelic trance. Other times, he is sincere and straightforward, such as on the defeatist lullaby “Pretty Boy.” Expressions of fear precede proclamations of apathy and follow promises of assurance. By the time “Hell or High Water” rolls around, one wonders whether the track’s retro pastiche is ironic or sincere. These severe tonal fluctuations build a sense of tension in the record’s first half that never quite reaches catharsis.
Perhaps the introduction of the Mono-Tones provides Chip with the support he so lacked on his own, because the second half of the album comforts the tensions raised in the first, even though it doesn’t fully relax them. Contemplation replaces contempt on songs like “Silver Lining” and “Tobacco Sunburst,” which offer a more measured reconsideration of prior frustration and self-criticism. Acoustic guitars infiltrate the electric ones, and skepticism shifts into honesty.
After spending an album with Chip Chrome, he somehow remains as undefined as he began, like a nascent myth. Lacking a clear narrative, he does not tell a story in a character’s traditional sense, but exists rather as a commentary on the nature of the performer as a performance. The music video for “Pretty Boy,” which paints an intriguing portrait of the artist as a has-been, leaves plenty of room for speculation about the extent of autobiographical traits regarding the role’s inhabitor. Silver from head to toe as Chip Chrome, Rutherford plays a guitar on the streets of L.A. to little fanfare; in a city teeming with striving talent, a shiny busker is unremarkable. When a similar musician decked out in gold draws a crowd a few yards from Chip, the symbolic relevance of their respective precious metals becomes obvious. The narrative then begins to blur performance with reality. The silver makeup gets washed off in a bathroom to reveal Rutherford beneath Chrome, but even then the separation between the two remains undefined. While credits list performers for the other two characters, there is no mention of Rutherford; the video, like the record, is simply “Starring Chip Chrome,” a claim both ambiguous and straightforward, implausible and plausible. The line between fiction and reality slims to a point of total questionability, but the illusion is upheld, as long as the silver paint stays on.