Let me tell you a little bit about Steve Kilbey…
A long, long time ago–in the late 1980s, to be exact–an Australian rock band called The Church were on their way to significant mainstream success, or so it seemed. They had made impressive inroads into the Billboard Hot 100 chart with a darn-near perfect psychedelic pop ditty called “Under the Milky Way.” Its equally strong parent album Starfish went gold–no mean feat in that era of Poison and Def Leppard. Just imagine it: there our antipodean heroes were, trudging out of the musical underworld like Orpheus, singing those beautiful songs, playing those beautiful Rickenbacker guitars, closing in on the taillights of the Cure, damnit. But something happened. Perhaps they turned to look back at Eurydice too soon, taking their eyes off the righteous path just long enough for grunge rock to sail on by and steal all the glory.
In the Church’s defense, no one could have predicted the impending Death of All Melody that would overtake the world for the better part of a decade. In 1988, they were an up-and-coming band with nothing but bright possibilities stretching before them. And during that summer, my friend Joe Carpenter and I became thoroughly besotted with the quartet, though we came at the band from quite different directions: Joe admired the Church’s charismatic guitarist Marty Willson-Piper who, with his long hair, black leather jacket, tight pants and manic stage moves thoroughly personified rock ‘n’ roll cool. Steve Kilbey–the shadowy, sulky guy wielding the bass and penning most of the lyrics–was an altogether different kettle of fish. He had a predilection for stuffing his verses with references to the Bible, ancient history (particularly the Babylonian, Byzantine and Roman Empires), the surrealists, and all manner of pre-twentieth century esoterica. Steve was my guy, and he was about as bookish as you could get while still playing electric guitar. Granted, I didn’t know too much about these Rimbaud and Baudelaire chaps he esteemed so highly, but the still-tangible undercurrents of his childhood obsessions–J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, not to mention the British television program Doctor Who–triggered a shock of recognition in my fantasy-intoxicated fourteen-year-old brain.
Not that it was all fairy tales. On Starfish he sang about drugs, prostitutes, crumbling relationships, man’s inhumanity to man, the general superficiality of modern life, and the abandonment of spirit for material pleasure. Melancholy stuff, to be sure, and yet…delivered in that rich voice bolstered by those mesmerizing guitars, it all sounded so lovely.
That was the gist of Church–their shtick, if you will. But you can imagine my excitement when I discovered that, concurrent with the group’s albums, Steve had been releasing homemade solo records, most of which were about as easy to track down in that pre-internet age as the Lost Ark of the Covenant. Nevertheless, I persevered and found what I sought. This was the pure, uncut stuff–a direct transmission of Kilbey’s fractured soul straight into my own DNA. For the next twenty years, Steve’s idiosyncratic musical dispatches became my own private treasure: something quite precious to me, yet almost entirely unrecognized and unheard by everyone else in my country.
…Everyone else, that is, except for North Carolina native Stephen Judge, who, like me, held the music close to his heart: an ever-present echo of his own pulse as he made his way from record-store clerk to band manager to president of an independent record label (Second Motion Records). Now, intent on reintroducing (or, more accurately, introducing) America to this neglected innovator, he has compiled a lavish eight-CD box set containing all of Steve’s official solo albums from 1986 through 2001, along with a generous helping of demos and outtakes. Titled Monsters n Mirages, it’s the first time much of this material has been directly available in the U.S. Fortunately for those who are not quite ready to buy the whole kit and caboodle, the CDs will also be released individually over the next year.
I will confess, due to my personal connection it’s very hard for me to be objective about this music, but I can tell you this: the earlier efforts such as Unearthed, Earthed, and The Slow Crack were recorded in a bedroom in Steve’s home and have the loose, rough-hewn feel you’d expect from such circumstances. Of the three, Unearthed has the most variety: there’s a little bit of folk, some Enoesque ambient exercises, and even country–assuming the “country” label still applies when the song is shot through with new wave synths. The music on Unearthed was never meant to be released commercially, and the resulting lack of inhibition is its chief strength. The instrumental Earthed album, however, with its thin ’80s keyboards and quantized rhythms, sounds pretty dated now and is not a good starting point.
I always found Steve’s Remindless album, which was recorded side-by-side with the Church’s Gold Afternoon Fix in 1989, to be tough-going, mainly due to the densely packed sound, the lack of obvious hooks, and the monotonous, ever-present drum machine. But in the liner notes that accompany the box set, Steve makes a persuasive case for it being his most innovative and expansive work. Listening to it with fresh ears, I’m now inclined to agree. Still, to me the most impressive CD here is Narcosis+, which can best be described as Kilbey’s Blood on the Tracks, composed and recorded as his personal life was unraveling and the abyss of what would prove to be a decade-long enslavement to heroin yawned before him. It’s not nearly as depressing a listen as my description might suggest; Steve’s gift for catchy choruses and beautiful instrumentation never deserted him. “Midnight in America” and “Fall in Love” are gorgeous, even when the latter serves up such harrowing lines as:
I knew this man, he had some kind of fatal affliction.
Each day, a tiny particle, a small drop of his soul, leaked or escaped into the air,
out beyond the insipid gray sky and into dead space.
A paranormal specialist could find no way to plug the tiny perforations
which dripped his spirit behind him as he went on down the highway.
Fall in love with me
Fall in love with me (It’s not impossible)
…Eventually he could derive pleasure from nothing,
the most lurid pornography or the most holy scriptures
failed to arouse him from his stupor, his boredom.
Great cities, or the endless beautiful plains stretched out before his jaded gaze,
and disappeared into the nothingness of his feeling.
Fall in love with me
Fall in love with me (It’s not impossible)
There’s a happy ending to all this. Steve got clean in 2000 and, both on his own and in various collaborations (including a revitalized Church), is now creating the best music of his career. Last year alone saw the release of The Church’s Untitled #23 (their best-reviewed album ever), Steve’s ironically titled CD Painkiller (not an opiate-fest at all but rather the sound of a long-anaesthetized soul roaring back to life), and a sublime collaboration with Martin Kennedy called Unseen Music, Unheard Words (from which the video above is taken) which aspires to be a 21st century analog to the storied Frank Sinatra/Nelson Riddle partnership.
No matter where you turn in the Kilbey catalog, there are rewards to be found. But Stephen Judge has done listeners an invaluable service by cobbling together Monsters n Mirages. The music on the eight discs is a carbon imprint of Steve Kilbey’s subconscious: a fascinating place populated by a host of beguiling angels and demons. For the inquisitive, the adventurous, and the poetic at heart, I cannot recommend this collection highly enough.
Robert Dean Lurie is the author of a biography of Steve Kilbey, No Certainty Attached, published in 2009 by Verse Chorus Press.