Every journey needs a soundtrack. The music of The Church has always formed the backdrop of mine. The band’s singer, Steve Kilbey, an accomplished lyricist, poet, blogger and painter, has also been one of my most significant writing influences. Allow me to introduce you to Kilbey’s recent solo album: Painkiller.
I’ve made it a habit — well, call it a ritual — that each time I receive a new album from The Church or Steve Kilbey, I get that first listen in while lying in a darkened room with the headphones cranked. First impressions are important, and I want the music to totally wash over me.
On that first listen, I’m looking for the song that causes goosebumps to ripple up and down my arms. The one that makes me forget myself. There’s always at least one on every Church album. A song I latch onto immediately. Others take a few listens to sink in, and sometimes a song I won’t like for years suddenly worms its way in and becomes an enduring favourite.
I plugged in Painkiller at midnight, while the city slept. I’d already heard the first track, “Outbound”, on Kilbey’s myspace page, so I knew it wouldn’t be the one. I’d heard “Wolfe” too, on several acoustic bootlegs, so it wouldn’t startle me either.
But… wait a minute! I’d never heard it like this!
My eyes popped open as the music swelled, and that familiar feeling swept over me. It built even more with “Celestial”, and “Crystalline Rush” took it to the ecstatic. It’s difficult to describe the beauty of these songs, the feelings of nostalgia and hope they inspire. The best I can do is to say that they cause your chest to expand and swell as though your heart might burst. That’s the sort of energy contained in these songs.
And then things suddenly turn darker. “Song for the Masking” slides in with the sort of baseline that makes your skin crawl and your morals do likewise.
The dissolution truly begins with “File Under Travel.” This felt like everything “Travel by Thought” (from The Church’s 1983 album Seance) was trying to be but couldn’t quite reach. It drives you relentlessly out of yourself until you don’t know up from down, left from right, fractured from whole. It’s a journey all right, one that shatters your consciousness into a thousand pieces and leaves you disoriented, but strangely open and receptive.
From there to the end of the album was a sonic blur — the songs pulled me along on a rollercoaster journey of pure emotion.
One of the things that impressed me most was the intricate structure of the album. It felt like the songs at each end mirrored — or better yet, provided a foil for — each other. The swelling chords and shouted vocals of “Wolfe” paired with the easier, wiser, more upbeat retrospective of “Forever Lasts for Nothing.” The sublime hope of “Celestial” was set against the darker, more jaded perspective of “Spirit in Flame.” But the absolute masterpiece was the placement of the two bookends: “Outbound” and “Not What You Say.” Painkiller opens by launching you out into space, beyond the solar system and into unexplored territory. In the middle, the journey turns transdimensional. It’s like being sucked into a black hole and dissolved into your component elements. You’re gradually reassembled in an entirely new and unfamiliar form, until at the end of the journey you suddenly find yourself drifting eerily at the bottom of the sea, a place you never expected to end up — or have you reached another strange galaxy altogether? You could just as easily be floating in the void.
That last song, “Not What You Say”, is a particular stroke of genius. It uses some of the same elements as the rest of the songs, a vocal or a melody that gives you something familiar to cling to, setting your mind at ease, before blindsiding you with sounds you never could have anticipated. Its effect is to “unhinge” you. After the initial lyrics set the stage there’s a long middle bit where a few simple notes are repeated over and over. Like a metronome, it’s incredibly effective at dropping you into a meditative state. The music eventually swells once more and lyrics come in, taking you a bit higher, and then those notes come back and reinforce your trance, sinking you deeper and deeper.
Soundscape is an apt description of Kilbey’s and The Church’s work. This was nothing short of an aural journey through a richly described inner landscape, orchestrated by a master.
Simon Polinski’s mixing was inventive and effective. Leaving in odd echoey bits of studio conversation at exactly the right moment was a stroke of genius. Nothing about this album is what you predict or what you expect.
And lest the above sound esoteric or somehow granola, this album totally rocks. It’s bass-driven in a way that SK’s prior solo work wasn’t. The bass comes fully to the forefront and slithers like a houri through a cloud of incense until you’re nearly intoxicated. Combine that with Church drummer Tim Powles’s relentless driving beat and you’ve got rock on an entirely new level.
I have to say that I loved (and still love) Kilbey’s previous solo album Dabble (2001). “Blessed One” is a sublime track. “Untitled Too”, with its nautical terminology and shouted delivery, hinted at some of the vocal territory that would later be explored here. And “Time to Say Goodbye” is my funeral song, for when my bones finally turn up bleached and brittle in the desert. But the contrast between these two consecutive solo albums is night and day. The artistic development that took place in those seven intervening years is staggering. This is another world entirely, with a depth and a layering that was never realized on Steve Kilbey’s prior solo work (though you always felt he was reaching for it).
Simply put, this is art that rocks.
(Painkiller can be purchased online. Check out Steve Kilbey’s Time Being website and pick up a copy of the album.)