There aren’t many Australian bands who first surfaced in the late ’70s that are still such a formidable, recognisable presence, and this is to say that The Church are as much an anomaly in the Australian music landscape as they are a treasure. Like Nick Cave, they flew in and out of public appeal, now only late in their career finding recognition for their achievements, all of which coincide with an intense amount of creativity between the band and their various songwriters, with soundtracks and solo efforts in abundance.
Untitled #23 smacks of indifference, at least from a title point of view. The Chameleons once claimed “Why Call It Anything?” and were indeed correct, but names provide identity and Untitled #23 just doesn’t have that Gold Afternoon Fix feeling. I recall a radio interview with Kilbey at the time, no doubt nudge-winking the interviewer with his verbal slight of hand, the absence of which now would suggest the magicians have dispensed with their tricks, their rabbits and their hats, the masks and the masquerades. Here are The Church with album number 23 – a band who need no introduction with an album that needs no title.
For a band with such an extreme back catalogue, it’s almost impossible to ignore the past, even though the various lives of The Church could be read as an epic novel in many chapters of which we are now nearing the final stretch, but the best way, perhaps the only way to listen to Untitled #23 is to not go seeking familiar signposts. A band who have been together this long have earnt the right to dismiss expectation and avoid repetition. Ever since the return to form Hologram of Baal released in 1998, The Church have pushed forward, seeking their own creative discovery and enlightenment.
“Cobalt Blue” is an unlikely opening track (see what I said about expectation). A listless minor chord strum sets Untitled #23 awkwardly off on the back foot and is less an opening statement than is normally found at the beginning of a Church album. “Deadman’s Hand” is more conventional Church fare, piercing guitar and piano loudly ringing out, Kilbey the ever-vivid wordsmith waving his own flag in the midst of war “on our way to crush the revolution/camped by a lake in the blackened lands”. The single “Pangaea” is another classic song in The Church canon, a soothing mix of dreamy harmonies and lush violins that lull you into a trance.
Thematically, Untitled #23 isn’t so much a rocker but a roller. It breezes in and envelopes like cigarette smoke in a crowded room. Musically, the instrumentation is more relaxed, pianos and strings play an important part with less emphasis on guitar dynamics where in past, the Koppes/Willson-Piper six-stringed wizardry vied for attention with Kilbey’s keen wordplay, but the spotlight rests almost entirely on his shoulders. The Willson-Piper presence is more noticeable on vocals, adding some rich harmonies as well as sharing vocal duties on “Happenstance” and the psychedelic nursery rhyme chorus on “Operetta” that closes the album.
Kilbey is now more than ever the lyrical journeyman, each song resounding with a new awakening or realisation sung with wisened conviction. Tucked towards the end of the album is Untitled #23‘s unarguable highlight with “Anchorage”, Kilbey rising to give his most impassioned vocal ever in what is perhaps The Church’s most accomplished album yet. It’s by no means a young man’s record, but neither are the men behind it, but it underlines the fact that 30 years playing rock and roll game has not dimmed their passion or tamed their spirit. Who could’ve imagined?