In addition to reviewing classic works of travel literature, I’d also like to draw your attention to works of outstanding artistic merit. The sort of thing that’s likely to appeal to those who enjoy my prose. The music of The Church has formed the soundtrack for every journey I’ve ever taken. Allow me to introduce you to their latest album: Untitled #23.
Untitled #23, the new album from Australian rock legends The Church, may just be their most successful yet. After having risen to global acclaim in the 80’s with the hit single “Under the Milky Way”, The Church and popular music soon parted company. They chose the road less traveled — the road of constant evolution, daring experimentation, and uncompromising artistic integrity. Judging by the reviews of Untitled #23 (including a top-shelf 5 stars in Rolling Stone), those paths may have converged once again.
I’ve had a difficult time writing about this album because each listen reveals another layer, a few new notes, a new interpretation. In truth, it’s what The Church has always done best. They defy easy categorization because the best of their music is timeless, existing in a universe of its own.
I can’t help but interpret this new album as a continuum. I see so many threads coming together here, threads that The Church have explored over the past decade on several albums and side projects. They’ve all converged — quite magically — in Untitled #23, with supreme artistry and consummate musicianship.
There’s the rawness that The Church began to explore on Forget Yourself (or really, as early as the Refo:mation side project) — the distortions, dischords, harsh sounds and rough edges. There’s the highly polished production and the wistfulness of After Everything, Now This. There’s the pop savvy and infectious energy of Uninvited, Like the Clouds. And Steve Kilbey’s lyrics echo the mystical insights, classical references and surreal impressions of his early career (Remindlessness, Heyday, etc), but with the world-weary melancholy and personalism of more recent projects (Isidore and Beside Yourself both come to mind). On top of all this, each band member’s mastery of their respective instruments is absolute, and Kilbey’s voice has never sounded better. All of these elements have melded alchemically into what may just be the perfect Church album.
The structure of Untitled #23 reminds me of their most commercially successful album, Starfish. It’s got that same balance of the pensive and the vibrant, those vast layered soundscapes that cause you to float somewhere out of yourself, paired with the ability to hit intense heights of emotional build which no one nails quite like these guys (the sort of intense driving build that makes ‘Block’ from Uninvited, Like The Clouds such an amazing opening track). But perhaps the most impressive thing about this new work is how The Church can gather together from the four corners of the globe and lay it all down in just a week or so of magical jams. When four such talented individuals come together, you’d expect the end product to be filled with signature riffs, individual “show-off” touches of virtuosity. That isn’t the case with Untitled #23. Each individual effort is tuned to the creation of one unified, seamless vision. These are artists at the height of their powers, exhibiting absolute mastery of their craft.
For lack of a better means of approach, I’d like to give my immediate first impressions of each track of this album. Quick, simple sketches from the hip…
‘Cobalt Blue’ – Strange chords — I would almost describe it as ‘dis-chordant’ — shimmer in with an offset beat that immediately makes me sit up and take notice. The chorus sets the tone of where we’re about to be taken: “And its nothing/nothing you could know…” In this song and the next one Kilbey lays down a soundtrack of places I feel I’ve been: “Desert wind in a telephone box” and “Camp by a lake in the blackened lands“. It’s a personal landscape I could almost imagine was written for me. Kilbey’s magic is such that, like prophecy, any Church connoisseur must feel this way.
‘Deadman’s Hand’ – An ‘Aura’ for today. Like that earlier track from the 1991 album Priest=Aura (which Kilbey has described as a vast, sprawling opium dream), it’s a dark tale of conflict (“On our way to crush the revolution…”) through terrain which could just as easily be a bleak desert land or the ravaged inner landscape of our own emotions.
‘Pangaea’ – The sort of thing The Church does best. This track floats, taking you off someplace beyond the veil until you forget yourself entirely, existing as pure music. Time, relationships, material success and lost worlds blend together and interpenetrate each other until you’re no longer entirely sure where you stand. And who but Steve Kilbey would write a rock song about a long lost supercontinent? The thing is, Kilbey knows Pangaea’s echoes are still with us today. We’re walking on them…
‘Happenstance’ – Kilbey’s cracked velvet voice at it’s coolest. Pure poetry as he spins images, not in narrative form, but as a series of impressions that come together to create the feeling he’s conjuring. Mysterious lyrics followed by an understated line — much like his signature plays on words (which flip reality inside out and cause you to see it from an unexpected angle), it’s what he does best.
‘Space Saviour’ – A ridiculously cool opening riff — upbeat and naïve — that slows suddenly as the vocals come in. The vocals are so heart wrenchingly earnest, and they build and build, but in the end he doesn’t release you — just like the love he’s singing about. This is the new SK, the naïve romantic who finally cast aside his cynical shoegazer cool and came into the open on songs like ‘Musidora’ (from Isidore) and ‘Jazz’ (from Beside Yourself). This one’s on heavy rotation at my place.
‘On Angel Street’ – Perfect prose poetry. It immediately reminded me of Kilbey’s coolest spoken word stuff — ‘Fall in Love’ from Narcosis +, ‘Saltwater’ from Isidore, or ‘Another Day’ (a one-off collaboration). Subtle touches of music — a few notes here, the raw peal of an anguished guitar — paint the landscape as Kilbey, in a few well chosen verses, captures the dissolution of a relationship. I don’t know how to express it except to say that it goes beyond words; the sum total of the music and the lyrics manifest as a colour. His tale ends on such a perfect image: “You should change the message on your machine/So sad, so strange baby, to hear my name” and then “And the line it just goes dead/And the trail it just goes cold/I guess that story’s told, anyway.” The deft musical touches as the song drifts off — a note here, a distortion there, some backwards guitars — are absolutely perfect.
‘Sunken Sun’ – Among my favourite sort of Church song. A fractured lens of several myths: Orpheus, Pluto, Eurydice (except this time Orpheus chooses love, casting aside his return ticket to remain in the underworld). And again, who but Kilbey would write a rock song that opens “I dreamed I saw the minotaur“? I love the spell this beautiful song weaves. “Eternity loomed in my garret room” — it’s this sort of writing which pegs Steve Kilbey as the greatest lyricist of this age. He builds such poetry and then immediately changes the tone with a clever, light double meaning (“I had a girl in the underworld/She was a spirited little thing“) which he sings with absolute sincerity. It’s never what you anticipate or expect.
‘Anchorage’ – One of my top Church songs ever. A perfect example of the sort of build only they are capable of. The verses drive you like a rocket, and each chorus incorporates another instrument or sound, taking you higher and higher, driving towards the ecstatic. Kilbey’s delivery is more and more urgent. The repeated images of ice spiral on like a mantra. None of his delivery or rhythms are predictable (the use of broken rhythm is high level martial arts — he’s a master of his craft). It’s the combination of those small artistic touches that no one else thinks to apply which puts The Church on an entirely different league of creative genius. This is The Church and Steve Kilbey at their absolute best.
‘Lunar’ – A fine little dream of a song. It’s compact grace — like a deftly executed miniature painting — reminded me of ‘Night Flower’ from Parallel Universe. A feeling or a mood, captured in a song.
‘Operetta’ – A lovely, soaring closing track. A bit of the dreamy nursery tale quality of ‘It’s No Reason’ from Séance, paired with the understated intentions of ‘Song to Go’ from Uninvited, Like the Clouds. But this time the album doesn’t resolve. It leaves you on such a high note that you’re helpless to do anything but hit ‘repeat’.
This may just be the best Church album in a decade, and a ‘second coming’ for an underappreciated band that absolutely deserves one.