Album of the Week, September 27: The Blurred Crusade by the Church

ChurchBlurredThe Church formed in Sydney in 1980. Bassist/vocalist Steve Kilbey and guitarist Peter Koppes had played together in a glam-rock outfit before hooking up with drummer Nick Ward. Calling themselves Limosine, they built a solid local reputation. That brought in guitarist Marty Willson-Piper, solidifying the group’s sound, a blend of new wave precision and neo-psychedelia. Changing their name to the Church, the quartet landed a deal with EMI and recorded a powerful debut album. Ward left immediately after that, replaced by Richard Ploog, finalizing a lineup that lasted for decades. After knocking out an EP that sounded a lot like the debut, the band hooked up with producer Bob Clearmountain and headed into the studio. Neatly avoiding a sophomore slump, they refined their sound around the twin guitar magic of Koppes and Willson-Piper, Kilbey’s strong vocals and mysterious lyrics, and the steady heartbeat provided by Ploog.

Album The Blurred Crusade
Act The Church
Label Arista Release Date March 25, 1982
Producer Bob Clearmountain
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Almost With You
  2. When You Were Mine
  3. Field of Mars
  4. An Interlude
  5. Secret Corners
  6. Just For You
  7. A Fire Burns
  8. To Be In Your Eyes
  9. You Took
  10. Don’t Look Back

From the opening notes, it’s clear that the Church have found their own sound. Almost With You is an enchanting song, a roadmap for a journey that might be inward or outward. Broadly appealing but anchored in the personal, it’s one of Kilbey’s finest lyrics and sets the stage for the band’s amazing output. The music is refined and accessible, a blend of swirling, chiming guitars and crisp rhythms.

When You Were Mine starts out slow and builds, proving the band’s skill at simplicity and complexity. It’s a beautiful song of loss with a magical guitar solo. Willson-Piper puts in a rare lead vocal on Field of Mars, a song that finds its narrator in a distant, lonely place. He could be travelling in space, lost in time, or stranded miles from home; the very human ache of the song blends with the surreal elements and mundane details to create a powerful picture. On An Interlude, the sound is more typical 80s rock, with a Churchy twist. Ploog provides some of his finest drumming, gradually picking up steam while the guitars cut in and out, finally catching up with him and providing a long, lovely fadeout. The sense of journeying fits in nicely with the other tracks, moving the album along with lovely sequencing.

Each side ends with a short song. Secret Corners (1:45) wraps up side one, a promise that the narrator will be ready when his companion needs him. A chiming guitar provides a sort of fanfare, wrapping up the first set with a promising enthusiasm.

Side two opens with a false start, a bit of acoustic guitar interrupted by knocking. Kilbey tells the visitor to wait, then kicks off the song. Just For You is a lovely acoustic ballad, a charming, almost folky moment that expands the band’s palette but fits in flawlessly. It has just enough of the sighing electric guitar to tie it to the rest of the tracks. That provides a smart bridge to A Fire Burns, which features some of the best psychedelic guitar duelling in the band’s catalog.

To Be In Your Eyes is a a remarkably straightforward love song, the closest the Church come to knocking off a typical 80s single. Kilbey’s lyrics are just mystical enough to make it a solid fit in this Crusade, however, and his almost-spoken vocal is a great touch. The album’s epic track is You Took, clocking in at over eight minutes. None of that time is wasted, however, as the band build a quietly angry tale of loss and betrayal. It’s an amazing piece of music, allowing each player to shine individually and as part of the magical whole. Kilbey’s barely restrained delivery is masterful; the electric / acoustic guitar jousting is scintillating; the drumming is spectacular, almost a primer in how to make an epic track tick.

After that emotional powerhouse, things wrap up quietly with Don’t Look Back, another short song (1:59) that makes its point and leaves the stage. A bit of optimism set over a throbbing rhythm with a guitar fanfare much like Secret Corners, it provides a perfect wrap-up to a beautiful album. The Church moved past their strong new wave launch to create their own special musical landscape. The Blurred Crusade remains the finest map to that place, an amazing musical statement that set the stage for an impressive run of sonic adventures over the next 30 years.

FURTHER LISTENING: The Church had an amazing debut with Of Skins and Heart. It’s the least like the rest of their music, but works very well as a representative of Australia’s finest new wave offerings. The third disc, Séance, was a rare misstep, with odd production and an awkward drum sound. From there, every album has something amazing to offer, and the band’s catalog is impressively consistent. The finest moment after The Blurred Crusade is 1988’s Starfish, their commercial breakthrough. It’s an amazing set of songs that benefits from the group’s sense of dislocation, recording in Los Angeles. The albums to either side of Starfish — 1985’s Heyday and 1990’s Gold Afternoon Fix — are solid offerings that only pale compared to the band’s two masterpieces. Ploog left in 1990, and the band’s sound with new drummer Tim Powles became more ethereal and free-form. It’s solid music, well-played, but not as compelling for me. The best of this era is Untitled #23 from 2009.

For a well-chosen overview of the Church’s music, 1999’s Under the Milky Way offers 17 great songs. It leaves out a lot of wonderful music, but provides a good introduction to an impressive, distinctive band.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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