[12 July 2009]
Patience is a virtue. If you disagree then you won’t ever appreciate the almost 30-year-old Aussie band the Church, much less their recent exemplar of dream rock patience, Untitled #23. Right from their 1981 debut, Of Skins and Heart, singer-lyricist Steve Kilbey established his trademark deep melancholic vocals and rather oblique (often dubbed “surrealist”) lyrics. While Kilbey never really changed that much, the Church moved increasingly spacier and less pop-rock on a number of efforts from then until now, with the exception of their major commercial breakthrough, 1988’s Starfish, and some bizarre flirtations with dance music on 2002’s Parallel Universes. 22 albums later, the Church give us one of their very best—meticulously wrought, mildly hallucinatory musicscapes marked by an unrepentant infatuation with fantasy and dreams, serendipity and fear, melancholy and hope.
“Untitled” connotes the world of art, perhaps especially the painting or installation that captures something so inscrutable that the artist will not pretend that a linguistic form will clarify, much less enhance the artistic experience. True to the title, the 23rd album is heavily textured and patient—or, for the impatient, long. Like most Church albums, all songs are over four minutes, and five of them are over five minutes. The songs, lyrically and instrumentally, creep like lava. Pianos, harps, cellos, vibraphones, and mellotrons join the usual guitars and drums. A few tracks (“Deadman’s Hand”, “Anchorage”, and “Space Saviour”) are more—which is not to say completely—upbeat. All work together to cast a compellingly ethereal aura on the whole.
They are still spacey and wondrously independent after all these years, and this album’s complexity is worthy of being their first release on the independent Second Motion label. “Cobalt Blue”, the first track, is also a testament to that independence. It is in medias res, not a hummable pop track or one that will begin a linear narrative. “And it’s nothing / Nothing you could know / Let it go / Nothing really that you could know”, Kilbey whisper-sings this riddle-of-a-song, his voice at times sounding like Ian McCullough doped into a “Lucy in the Sky” reverb mode. Yet it’s a fitting opener, since the refrain “Nothing really that you could know” seems to have a dose of Kilbey’s somewhat religious and poetic methodology: the muse speaks, but the meaning and, more importantly, the beauty of the experience in question can only be known fleetingly, not repeated or preserved in a jar for all to see. Ironically, his words are foregrounded by the music, but one is more likely to find the ultimate meaning through the portal of the music itself. The words are but dispatchers.
Consider “On Angel Street”. The spare but trippy keyboards in the opening sound like someone has slow-mo-ed the alarm on some vital-sign-monitoring medical equipment. The vocals appear in a call-and-response sequence with a lone guitar, producing a perfectly lugubrious aural scene. Percussion only makes entry shortly before the three-minute mark, and then in the form of what sounds like a timpani, which should be an indication of just how patient these compositions are. The vocals, lyrics, and tempo also at times recall something like a more psychedelic version of Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat”. The lyrics tell, among other things, of a man who goes outside for snow, and looking up to the heavens, gets only rain. We’re left with him standing there in our minds, all usual reason to run for cover smothered by a larger resignation that we somehow know but have no word for. No Snow? Rain, devour me. Untitled, indeed.
Many of these songs flirt with torpor and nearly endless rumination (even while on “Cobalt Blue” they tease you that there’s “nothing really that you could know”), so true and appealing to a part of our species. A proud heaviness in the songs sorts out the listeners. If you want them to accelerate, it’s like trying to run through chest-deep water. You’re forced to slow down and appreciate what’s engulfed your entire body—or you become very, very frustrated fast.
“Space Saviour” is one of the most melodic, memorable, and upbeat tracks on the album, and a close look at it demonstrates the album’s aura and Kilbey’s poetic craft. It’s a melodic cut taken at chipper midtempo, practically worthy of Joshua Tree-era U2, had Bono more “lost soul” in his voice. Once again, single guitar chords are repeatedly strummed, usually for two measures, and build like the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” to a kind of epic crescendo strengthened by a keyboard flourish, only to see the whole musical house of cards tumble down and start building anew.
That lush musical context foregrounds some very deliberate poetry. A consideration of the album’s patient virtues would be sorely lacking if it neglected the details of Kilbey’s lyric poetry. “Space Saviour” is a poem crafted into three sets of quatrains whose fourth line is a kind of refrain: “I can’t let it go”. Each of the three sets of verses is followed by a chorus. But the poetic craft doesn’t stop there. Each of those three sets of verses follows a pattern where the singer/poet alternates between a metaphor in one verse and a simile starting the next. In the first verse, she is “My little lonely”. In each of the three sets of verses, the second verse is always a simile (beginning with “like”). In the second verse of the song, it is “like a siphon or straw”. Consider the signature Kilbey lyrics that inhabit the curious structure. The lyrical “I” can’t let go of someone. She is figured as “my little saviour,” “my little lonely,” “my little heart,” “my little golden,” “like a trick or tornado,” and “like a needle or tack when she’s giving you back.” Slightly enigmatic verses are somewhat clarified in the more direct chorus: “And I’ve gotta get up / And I’ve gotta get on / And I’ve gotta get off / But I can’t let it go”. This is what you would get if you gave K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s “Please Don’t Go” to the Surrealist writer Paul Eluard and said, “Now do it right.”
The Church made up their minds quite awhile ago that they wouldn’t be pop stars. Millions of people can’t be bothered with this kind of patient, melancholic stylization that begs innumerable re-listens. But for those who can wait, pleasures are plenty in Untitled #23.