To say that The Church have been at it for quite awhile now is a bit of an understatement. To say that it’s a rare thing for a band to put out one of their best records of their career in their 22nd year of existence is also a bit of an understatement. However, with After Everything Now This, the Church have done just that - put together a record that handily bests anything that they’ve put out in the last 15 years, and can stand head and shoulders against their best efforts of the ’80s. Easily their most compelling collection of material since 1987’s breakthrough Starfish LP, After Everything Now This shows a band emerging from a rather lengthy creative rut. Not that The Curch’s output of the ’90s was anything approaching bad, but few fans will argue the point that nothing the band put out in that decade can stand up to their high-water marks, 1984’s The Blurred Crusade, 1986’s Heyday and the aforementioned Starfish.
After Everything Now This (The Church’s 14th full length release, not counting several EPs and numerous solo records from principals Steve Kilbey and Marty Willson-Piper) was several years in the making, and was recorded on three continents — but you’d never know it, because it’s the most cohesive thing that The Church have produced in years. Drummer Tim Powles’ production imbues these songs with a consistently beautiful crystalline air — guitars are clean and chiming, drums insistent with their steady push-pull, and Steve Kilbey’s always inventive basslines run through the mix like veins on a muscular forearm. While the Church’s classic records might boast stronger songs as a whole, this is by far the best sounding album the Church have brought out in their entire career. The band continues with the trend of de-emphasizing big, bright guitar hooks (which featured prominently on songs like “Reptile” and “North, South, East and West”, from Starfish), instead, opting for a translucent sheen that settles around these songs like fog over a marine town. After Everything also finds The Church making more use of effects and electronics than on previous albums, but thankfully, instead of being distracting and annoying, these effects merely serve to enhance the otherworldly tone of the recording.
Thankfully, After Everything is not all style and no substance — the songs are the best batch that the band has written in years as well. Many of their ’90s efforts floated off into the lyrical ether, with Kilbey discoursing on ancient mythology and obscure religious questions without really bothering to ground his lofty ideas in real human experience. As such, many of these songs failed to make an emotional connect, and came across more as academic exercises than pop songs. On After Everything, however, Kilbey seems to have curbed this tendency. Although he still deals in spiritual and religious imagery, he links these concepts to real experience, giving them much more weight than they would have otherwise. For example, on the title track, Kilbey manages to juxtapose inherently spiritual questions of life and death (“Here is a child playing in a garden / Here is an old man with a broken heart / Here comes a train to take you away / It all goes round and round and comes back to the start”) with much more mundane (yet equally important on a day-to-day basis) questions of life’s unavoidable moments of indecision (“Never really sure what you were waiting for / When the moment came you just couldn’t choose”).
Elsewhere, in “Radiance”, Kilbey deals with the religious and spiritual much more explicitly, with a beautiful tale of a virgin visitation. Not exactly typical matter for a pop song, certainly (then again, Kilbey’s always been a bit lyrically eccentric), but he keeps things interesting and thought-provoking, and winds up creating something practically transcendent in its beauty. The song details “three small sisters” who happen to witness “a strange light in the sky blotting out the sun”, and are changed forever without really knowing what happened to them. “And the children ran home sobbing and half blind / Said our lady has a message for mankind / Frightened and bewildered, not making any sense / Dazzled by the virgin’s radiance,” goes the chorus. There doesn’t seem to be much of a message here; Kilbey just seems to enjoy musing on the idea that these things can happen.
Kilbey also seems to have his eye on the real world as well, as songs like “Numbers” prove. Perhaps the most instantly engaging tune to lead off a Church record since the insistent tug of “Myrrh”, from 1986’s Heyday, “Numbers” is a typically haunting meditation on war and conflict, albeit in Kilbey’s usual enigmatic lyrical style. “One for the cockpit crews, two for the panzer crews, three for the vast and molten sky.” This is not the only mention of conflict on the record: the swirly, druggy-sounding “Night Friends” features the following quixotic verse: “Loving, we’ve been loving / But sometimes hate is better / You can’t keep out the killers with love, man / Hating, we’ve been hating / But only love can heal up the hate.” These words also reveal Kilbey’s fascination with the duality of the world, and perhaps point a finger towards the Gnostic ideas that has been known to study.
No great Church record gets by without guitarist Marty Willson-Piper putting his two cents in, and After Everything is no exception. Willson-Piper’s voice, although sometimes very similar sounding to Kilbey’s, has a slightly higher pitch and more urgent tone, and can provide a relief from Kilbey’s sometimes relentless melancholy. Here, he lends his pipes to “Chromium”, perhaps the most insistent, rhythmic song on the disc. Although on paper, the lyrics read like so much nonsense (“Gilded flowers / Long-lost hours / Morning programs / With fake suntans / Neo-maniac in the cul-de-sac / Otherwise it’s this in me”), they are quite effective in the context of the song, and provide a nice respite from Kilbey’s mostly narrative-driven pieces.
The record closes with “Invisible”, possibly one of the most beautiful, haunting pieces in a catalog positively rife with beautiful, haunting pieces. Hovering in the air for nearly seven minutes before expiring in a gauzy woosh of sound, and the words “All I ever wanted to see / Was just invisible to me.” It provides a fitting closure to a record that, with any luck, will usher in a new era of productivity for this long-neglected, but often near-brilliant band.