Musician among the Images

Reading the Lyrics of Steven Kilbey

Paul Hullah

The words are vague and opaque and they are a quick amalgamation of people, places and events. They are about things that could have happened but did not, and things that did happen but could not have. If you think that last sentence is silly, chances are you probably won't like my words much. - Steven Kilbey1

David Bowie's lyrical observation, made in the 1970s, that Bob Dylan's song-words 'turned a couple of people on, / And put the fear up a whole lot more' 2, might equally and usefully have been applied to sundry attempts during the 1980s by academics to apply analytical techniques current in literary criticism to the lyrics of contemporary rock music. In particular, Aidan Day's ground-breaking study of Bob Dylan's words, Jokerman: Reading the Lyrics of Bob Dylan3, marked a watershed in the field, taking seriously - too seriously for some - the poetical effects and images embedded in the American singer's song-words, separating reviewers into those who applauded 'a good book' which was 'rightly unapologetic about using the sophisticated methods of modern literary criticism on Dylan's language',4 and others who dismissed the exercise as 'gaseous and po-faced pretentiousness'.5

The scorn of commentators such as the latter stems from an old-fashioned, overly-protective attitude towards the traditional poetical 'canon' - from Gawain to Eliot and not much further - into which any living writer, and certainly not one who plays a guitar, shall not be admitted. Such hostility is naive, anachronistic and misplaced: Day specifically terms Dylan's work 'song-poetry' and looks at it in the light of such a classification. If singers with guitars aren't allowed to be called 'poets' proper, then so be it: we'll invent a new category for them. There are enough of them to justify such a procedure. In his entry for Bob Dylan in Contemporary Poets, Day clarifies the distinction:

Dylan has never sacrificed the musical side of his inspiration - his is a song-poetry and is written not to an accentual syllabic but to a strongly accentual metre, supported by a sophisticated sense of rhyme. At the same time he has repeatedly demonstrated that songs may bear the same load of meaning as conventional poetry.6 (Italics mine.)

It is in the light of this important realisation, that song-poetry is a special kind of writing which nevertheless may carry a depth and opacity making it appropriate to literary critical analysis, that I would like to offer a reading of the work of another man with a guitar, the Australian composer, singer and lyricist, Steven Kilbey.7

Kilbey's art first came to my attention in 1982 when, quite by chance, I attended a concert in Edinburgh of The Church, the band in which he is bassist, songwriter and lead vocalist. At the concert, as is customary at such electronically amplified events, Kilbey's lyrics were inaudible, but the music itself, a layered, driving, melodic, twisting rock mutation, psychedelic and focused at once, was enough to catch my interest. Subsequently purchasing the band's recorded work up to that date, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Kilbey's lyrics formed an appropriate match to the music as I had heard it live.8 Like the music, the wordplay was psychedelically inclined but artistically focused, the meaning(s) of layered rather than linear nature, outstanding and original of its time. For Kilbey is, like Dylan, a song-poet: his lyrics are not meant to stand separate from the music accompanying them. As he himself has stated: 'The words are impressions of the music, they are its counterpart in language.'9 Indeed, when Kilbey has published (or performed) words without music he has, notably, chosen prose and not poetry as his medium. In this paper, however, I want to look at imagery employed in some of Kilbey's song-lyrics and analyse the way it functions to mark him as of interest as another song-poet whose output stands up to the test of critical analysis more usually afforded to 'poetry' proper.

By standards set by his contemporaries in the rock world, Kilbey is a long-standing and prolific artist. Over 17 active years since 1980 he has released 23 albums of original recorded material, with The Church (12 albums), as a solo artist (5 albums), and in collaboration with others (6 albums to date). Lyrically, his approach has not significantly altered with time, though a move towards more sophisticated spiritual imagery can be detected in his most recent writing. Taken as largely consistent, then, throughout a body of work, Kilbey's fundamental lyric style might be described as surrealist-imagist with a deliberate resistance of simple (narrative and metaphorical) closure. His regular employment of fragmentation of image and self-referentiality is postmodernist in nature and he frequently enters the realms of the surreal via the 'free association of random images brought together in surprising juxtaposition'.10

Brimful of images which often appear to be randomly assembled, Kilbey's lyrics are in fact carefully structured around postmodernist principles. Thus, when Kilbey affects a narrative it is more properly anti-narrative. 1992's 'Dome' is a notable example.11 'I saw this film about some people who lived in a dome' the piece opens, ironising traditional story-telling openings since, after hearing the vaguest details about this 'film' we switch to description not of the movie but of a dream experienced by the speaker during its transmission. Uncertainty prevails and we are ultimately left hanging, never to hear the film's true dénouement, brought rather back to the beginning of the 'story' in circular fashion by a final line which simply repeats the first:

I saw this film about some people who lived in a dome,
In a beautiful field next to a river that foamed.
I fell asleep before it was over,
I must have dreamt up the end /
I saw this film about some people who lived in a dome.

In fact it is the subconscious effect the 'film' exercises upon the speaker which usurps the expected monopoly upon our interest of the contents of the actual film, just as in most of Kilbey's writing negotiation of image becomes as important as the image itself. Kilbey's statement of the writer's task as being to 'transfer and imprint his images and ideas into the minds of others, letting those images and ideas resonate as they will'12 leads him, as we shall see, to value images more for their elusivity than for any power they might once have had to deliver certainty of import, and to reject traditional narrative ordering in favour of image patterning which encourages explosion of meaning:

I try to set up lyrical situations where people start using their own imaginations as sort of a diving board. I've just got this feeling that there is more going on than meets the eye. I think the very best songs throughout the ages are more open-ended.13

Traditional causal narrative expectations are also abnegated via a collision of disparate images in a much earlier work, 'Bel-Air' (from The Church's debut album Of Skins and Heart (Arista, 1981)) which adopts a (mock) pulp/detective fictional tone to inject fake-momentum into its surrealistic non-plot:

So down to the beach, just out of reach,
The moon was being trailed,
A girl and a sailor and a hot dog trailer

In the motel pool, the waitress cools,
She doesn't ask for more

Somewhere far away there's another day
And someone's getting out of bed
She doesn't know she's dead.

Both musically and in terms of accumulation of images, this mysterious lyric - with its repeated teasing of versions of identity: 'she's a dolphin in disguise / she puts on her face' - affects to build through mounting crescendo to an ironic climax which finds the protagonists of the piece unable to inhabit or meaningfully relate (for more than a moment) to any one of the personae the song has offered up as possibilities for them:

And he descends the stairs, he doesn't see. The sunburnt landlord glares for all the people He can never be. He can never, he can never, He can never be.

What's going on? There is no certainty in the narrative as there is no ultimate identity for its protagonists: literally and emphatically, they (the waitress, the 'he', the landlord) can never 'be', never exist, outside the terms of the fragmented narrative nor, it seems, even inside it. 'Bel-Air' uses stereotypical narrative conventions to expose their vulnerable assumptions and limitations. Like the mock-dramatic photographic pastiches of the American artist Cindy Sherman, 'Bel-Air' constructs stage-sets - 'A girl and a sailor and a hot dog trailer' - but leaves them bereft of dialogue or plot, exposing the precarious nature of their 'meaning'. This attitude to the traditional notion of narrative is described by the author himself (with tongue firmly in cheek, one suspects):

It's a story within a story without a story; a buried plot with plenty of red herrings, split infinitives and easy-to-follow anti- revelations.14

As one might expect of an artist so adept at (re)managing literary conventions, Kilbey is clearly an eclectic reader. Though he does not wear influences on his sleeve, Shakespeare, Sophocles, Camus, Wilde, Dickens, Yeats, and Angela Carter all crop up in his lyrics. Aware of this variety of 'literary' registers, Kilbey is himself an inventive wordsmith with an impishly inquisitive mind and a fertile intellect. He also has a subtle, wry sense of humour which he is unafraid to display in his lyrics and which frequently rescues him from charges of pompousness, for pompous he is definitely not. If he has a shortcoming, it is an occasional clumsiness: his obvious love of punning and double-entendre sometimes leads him to include puerile wordplays which, in reflection, might have been better omitted. 'Pinnochio he loves her, / Like anybody wood' ('The Egyptian'15), is a pure toe-curler and a line from 1994's burlesque of Chandleresque gumshoe-fiction 'Loveblind' - 'I had a shave, it was close too.' - is ruined by the unnecessary addition of the sledgehammer-heavy punch line; 'A close shave!'16 But such slips into hamfistedness are few and far between (in fact, the amount of trawling it took me to find the above two examples leads me to reconsider and conclude that such lapses are so conspicuous that they simply seem to be more than they really are) and should not detract from the innovation to be found elsewhere.

With a touch of that self-deprecating humour alluded to above, Kilbey has described his own writing as an amalgamation of 'loose threads of myth, legend, dream, non-sequitur, science fiction, automatic writing and the occasional punctuation error'.17 Its themes are indeed manifold and it is an illuminating (if over-simplifying) exercise to summarise some of them. It should be noted that not one but a plurality of thematic concerns resides within each intertextually-woven song Kilbey writes, and all are imbued with the open-ended, imagist-surrealist qualities previously noted, but some prominent strands appear.

Firstly, there are what might be called 'love' songs, yet these consistently perform other, usually surrealistic verbal acrobatics. 'Two Places at Once',18 for instance, offers a mournful address to a significant other whilst simultaneously blurring that other's identity and suggesting existence in a previous life:

There's an old man here, He claims that he knew you in another life. I'm not sure what he's saying, Ellie, Could it be he still thinks you're his wife?

The Church's best-known number, 'The Unguarded Moment',19 might also be termed a 'love' lyric on one level but it too distorts the convention through a surrealist lens, self-confessedly striving to be 'deep without a meaning' with its images of 'girls with rifles for minds' and 'men with horses for hearts'. 'Mistress',20 has its speaker addressing a ghostly, halo-wearing figure who, we learn, has 'been dead' as, once more, a conventional interpretation of the love-lyric form is challenged, while 'Under the Milky Way'21 uses a plaintive, simple chorus refrain - 'Wish I knew what you were looking for, / Might have known what you would find.' - to offset the maelstrom of surreal imagery crowding its verses.

Less effective are the lyrics on Church albums in which Kilbey has attempted an order of realist social comment. Such pieces, whose titles, unlike those of the bulk of Kilbey's works, give the game away in one fell swoop, include 'Blood Money', 'Business Woman' (which Kilbey notably and unsuccessfully fought to remove from The Church's 1994 Sometime Anywhere album), 'Fighter Pilot, Korean War', and an attack on the exploitation of animals in the name of 'beauty' treatments, 'Youth Worshipper'. Such predominantly one-dimensional productions (though surrealist undercurrents arguably exist) constitute by far the least successful of Kilbey's lyrical gambits. Though Kilbey clearly believes in the causes he variously outlines (he is a vegetarian and has used concerts as a platform from which to expound his anti-carnivorous views), his lyrics of this category too often veer towards empty rant, and one feels him uncomfortable with such 'realist' didacticism: notably, songs offering such 'social comment' are wholly absent from Kilbey's solo work.

More promising are lyrics elsewhere dealing with the possibility of extra-temporal or extra-terrestrial life and the plausibility of verbal and social (and occasionally sexual) intercourse with such 'life': 'Tantalized', 'Lost', 'Terra Nova Cain', 'Aura', 'Much Too Much' and 'Destination' all allow Kilbey's fecund imagination the freedom to roam into (literally) unexplored territory and invent bizarre science-fictional backdrops and scenarios. Such original settings and encounters with other-worldly beings, unchained to rules of logic or narrative progression, allow Kilbey unashamedly to explore possibilities of non-sequitural patters of continuity and exotic, unearthly imagery. Other-world dramatics are obviously suited to the author's surrealist predisposition.

But a major clue to Kilbey's enduring appeal - related to the above interest in what lies 'beyond' this time and life - lies in lyrics built around another theme repeatedly occurring in his oeuvre, his interest in mysticism and magic. He openly displays a fascination with cabbalism and the occult. The title piece of The Church's 1996 album, Magician Among the Spirits (Mushroom Records) pays homage to Harry Houdini (in fact, the phrase is transplanted directly from, A Magician Among the Spirits, a book of exposés of psychic frauds which Houdini published in 1924); 'The Golden Dawn' summons the nineteenth-century mystics' circle of that name, in which W. B. Yeats participated; 'Almost With You' describes contacting the spirits of the dead; 'Witch Hunt' considers the ancient and modern persecution of witches; 'The Disillusionist' portrays a sham, itinerant 'magician', and parts of 'English Kiss' also refer to vaudeville-type conjuring tricks.

Yet even stronger is Kilbey's interest in 'genuine' spiritualism and world religions. His treatments of this area draw upon systems of belief from all corners of the globe: examples include 'Day of the Dead' (Mexican), 'The Egyptian' (Egyptian), 'English Kiss' (a synthesis of Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism), 'Kings', 'Reptile', 'Lullaby', and 'Myrrh' which are all modernist reworkings of Biblical myth. In 'Myrrh'22 the questing Magi, recast as extra-terrestrials who 'plummet down here to earth', are recontextualised into a modern setting, 'cruising down this shuddering highway' into Jericho. Kilbey's surrealist-imagist manifesto is thus married to a mystical, mythical undertow with compelling results. Early in the lyric, the imagist directive is neatly satisfied in the line 'New Christ beneath a drumkit moon' - a moon like a drumkit!? - which invites us to join the dots, make a simile, as do the petals and faces of Pound's 'In a Station of the Metro', but deliberately jars the effect in non-sequitural fashion. Chronology is dislodged as the text simultaneously crushes certainty of reference at the level of its images:

We're interrupted by the telephone,
You didn't think they were invented then.
Oh Lord we need miracles,
We need more wine and gold,
We need slaves and roads and personal favours,
We need microphones and manifolds.

Assonantally and positionally, 'miracles', 'microphones', and 'manifolds', are to be read in terms of one another here: the present-day Magi urge us to reassess communication ('microphones') and travel ('manifolds') and ask what 'miracles' we believe in now. Temporal blurring, as ancient and modern are fused, achieves a knock-on effect in that referential power of images within the lyric is also thus no longer stable. The lyric's chorus refrain hints at Kilbey's prime concern, as the summoned 'Lord', but also the 'image' is challenged:

How can you be so invisible? Give me the nerves to see

The issue of images and meaning is addressed here as much as the deity the questing Magi of the narrative are trying to locate. In fact, the two inseparably co-exist for Kilbey. 'Image' is that which is ultimately unfathomable and thus, potentially and in a spiritual sense, 'God'. In Kilbey's most sophisticated lyrical work, in which imagist technique is applied to religious conundrums, we witness a neo-Yeatsian configuration of image and underlying spiritual belief as the author attempts to make (a) sense of the world by teasing plurality of meaning out of its signs, with no position privileged above another, abruptly recontextualising symbols and images, waiting for underlying patterns to randomly show themselves but not anxious when they do not do so. As the speaker of 'Feel'23 rhetorically asks, 'Why can't I feel it? / Why should I try?', so other lyrics restate the bathetic paradox:

So now I wander through the days,
I wonder who designed this maze,
If it's unending, sending out some kind of sign

What do you want me to want?
Something that means something?

This ambivalent position, a keystone to appreciation of the overall strategy of Kilbey's art, is deftly, ironically condemned in 'No Such Thing',26 whose speaker adopts the persona of empiricist realist to show the partially realised, dogmatic nature of such a pose:

There's no such thing as surrealism,
There's no such thing as soul,

I live in the real world, I don't believe in ghosts,
Verification, not imagination

It's not my problem if you believe in fairies and elves
And gnomes and genies and witches and goblins and dreams

The irony is even more apparent when the lyric is taken in context of the collection on which it appears - between 'Excerpt from Charlotte's Bay Pde.', a story about metamorphosis and dreaming, and 'Soul Sample', which argues that 'All this body gets in the way'.

'Somewhere we lost touch with our spirit', Kilbey laments; his lyrics strive to reclaim the spiritual, to leave the 'body' behind and explore spiritual topics, spurred by the belief that 'Poetry is still relatively pure' and that in lack of closure, though 'it's only plain old words and, in a linear way, it's probably un-understandable', there 'exists something that's better than mere understanding'. And of this elusive 'something'; 'Šah, what should one call itŠ Inspiration? Magic? God?'27 As open-ended images are allowed to collide in epiphanic fashion against a shifting backdrop of religious yearning, Kilbey's writing repeatedly comes to address religious issues. 'English Kiss'28 directly alludes to the non-fixity of reference Kilbey's writing regards as so important (yet, at times, so frustrating?) and the implications of such open-endedness where the search for spiritual permanence is concerned.

Have you prayed, have you chanted,
With the cymbals and incense,
To both Krishna and Buddha
And the Goddess of Fortune,
For an Indian lover,
To wake Kundalini,
The beautiful yonni
But also Iscariot
Who comes to betray us

As praying and chanting here might summon not only wanted but also unwanted responses, so images have no power to limit the way in which they can trigger connotation or will be interpreted. The juxtaposition of cultural and religious reference is as uncontainable as the juxtaposition of images offered elsewhere in Kilbey's work. (Another bold example of such non-fixity of juxtaposed reference is 'Welcome', from 1996's Magician Among the Spirits, which is largely a list of proper names from popular culture and history, random nominers cast together so that their connotations alone make the pattern of the underlying 'meaning', each prosaically stated name bringing its baggage of symbolic, cultural and historical value along to the parade.)

When Kilbey's lyrics enact an investigation of what lies beyond surface reality in a spiritual sense, they simultaneously investigate what lies beyond the signifier-image. That unknown, unknowable, imaged variable, the eternally open-ended signified, equals (potentially) God. (Hence, for all Kilbey's protestations that the term is meaningless, the title of The Church's 1992 collection, Priest=Aura, begins to look remarkably appropriate.) In Kilbey's writing, elusivity is treasured as being an indicator of something beyond the world of surfaces. Yet there can, of course, be no certainty, only the unceasing search. As the questing inhabitants of 'Myrrh' meet with 'unwanted discovery' in a lyric where people feel 'pain in their eyes' from trying to 'see', Kilbey is aware of the paradox behind all his art: elusivity of reference and meaning bring artistic enrichment but cannot ever offer complete affirmation in any spiritual religious sense. In Steven Kilbey's enigmatic song-poetry, surrealistic defamiliarisation is the process by which our dangerous complacency in reading the world is continually tested and ultimately resisted. It keeps alive our faith by never confirming it, whether in certainty of reference in language or in image or in 'God', the spiritual beyond, whatever is out there.


1. Press release for Priest=Aura (Arista Records, 1992).

2. 'Song For Bob Dylan' from Hunky Dory (RCA Records, 1971).

3. Aidan Day, Jokerman: Reading the Lyrics of Bob Dylan (Oxford: Blackwell,1988).

4. Daniel Karlin, The Telegraph.

5. Robert Sandall, Sunday Times.

6. Thomas Riggs ed., Contemporary Poets (6th. Edn.) (London: St. James, 1996) 292.

7. Kilbey was actually born in England but, since a very early age, has resided in Australia.

8. Frustratingly (and intentionally?), hardly any of Kilbey's recorded work includes printed lyric sheets. I apologise for any mistakes in transcription. Where part of a lyric is quoted, I have cited the song title and provided a note of the album upon which it appears, record label and original release date.

9. Press release for Priest=Aura (Arista, 1992).

10. Chris Baldick, 'Surrealism' entry in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (Oxford: O. U. P., 1990) 217.

11. from Priest=Aura (Arista, 1992).

12. Steven Kilbey, Earthed (Salem MA: Ryko, 1987) pages unnumbered.

13. Brad Bradberry, 'Keeping the Faith' in Options Magazine (Sydney) 1988.

14. Kilbey, Earthed.

15. Written 1992, released on Narcosis Plus (Vicious Sloth, 1997).

16. from Sometime Anywhere (Arista, 1994).

17. Kilbey, Earthed.

18. from Sometime Anywhere (Arista, 1994).

19. from Of Skins and Heart (Arista, 1981).

20. from Priest=Aura (Arista, 1992).

21. from Starfish (Arista, 1988).

22. from Heyday (Arista, 1985).

23. from Priest=Aura (Arista, 1992).

24. 'Pretty Ugly, Pretty Sad' from Unearthed (Mushroom, 1987).

25. 'Something that Means Something' from The Slow Crack (Red Eye, 1987).

26. from Remindlessness (Red Eye, 1990).

27. Kilbey, Earthed.

28. from Narcosis Plus (Vicious Sloth, 1997).

Additional acknowledgment: I found much information whilst researching this essay in Brian Smith's sedulously maintained Shadow Cabinet web site and Trevor Boyd's excellent NSEW magazine, two indispensable sources for admirers of Kilbey's work. These editors' tasks must be thankless a lot of the time: I thank them both.

Paul also said
If any Church devotees would like an actual copy of the article in printed pamphlet form, they can e-mail me and, so long as they can in some way stump up the postage or swap me something nice, I'll gladly send them a copy free of charge. (It's about the size/weight of a copy of NSEW, so postage, even from here, shouldn't be too wallet-stinging.)
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