Thursday, October 13, 2011

Steve Kilbey's "Narcosis"

I’ve never understood the allure of Heroin. I don’t get what it is about a drug that has killed so many people that makes other people say “Hey, I’ve got to try that!” It’s a tragedy that some deep need inside certain people drive them towards such a destructive thing – from what I understand, it’s such a powerful opiate that it just takes over your life to the point where nothing else matters. But without disregarding the drug’s power, it does seem to spark an incredible creativity in some artists. I can think of many musicians just off the top of my head that have made fantastic music despite – or because of? – their Heroin additions, including Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley, The Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson, Eric Clapton, and Kurt Cobain. In all of these instances, the drug seemed to exasperate their best and worst tendencies, but since their best was often close to genius, the results were often stunning.

For Steve Kilbey, heroin was a mixed bag. On one hand, he and the church used the drug to inspire the incredible sounds and atmosphere on the 1992 Priest = Aura album. Unfortunately, this creative spark didn’t entirely translate into other albums; as his drug addiction took over, it also resulted in a number of sub-par albums, the first of which is his solo album Narcosis. This isn’t to say that it's all bad – despite what I’ll say below, it’s really not! – but a lot of the music here is opaque and missing the moments of pop clarity and catharsis that so effortlessly popup elsewhere in his work.

(Note that most of the Narcosis tracks were released under that name in 1991 ("Somna" through "Space"), and then Kilbey introduced four more tracks in 1992 (along with a truly horrific album cover) as Narcosis+ More. This review will cover the whole group of songs as presented in the monsters n’ mirages box set.

Musically, I find this album to be rather static. Most of the songs find a mood or riff and ride it for the entire song. For example, "Somna" kicks off the album (starting a trend of excellent openers on his next three albums) with a with a wonderfully uplifting guitar lick. But as great as it is, the song never takes off to the next level, making it in the end nothing more than an interesting mood piece. In fact, for the first time in SK’s output, some songs just do nothing for me, including “Space”, a plodding instrumental notable only for the excellently evil bass, the groupie song “Linda Wong”, and “Sleep with Me”, an aimless song with a metronome guitar lick among other awkward rhythms. Other songs are merely average, like “Midnite in America” with its perfectly nice chorus and piano, or the trancey groove of “Over”. Other than “Somna”, the musical highlights are “The Egyptian”, a gorgeous ballad, and “English Kiss”, one of the first examples of the space-lounge music that SK would do much better in his work with Martin Kennedy (listen to the background touches: a simple piano lick, keyboard flourishes, something that sounds like a flute; all contributing to the feeling of smoking hashish in some muhamaadeen’s tent outside the bazaar).

No, what really makes this album stand out are the lyrics, which are mainly focused on the death of inspiration as a result of his Heroin. SK was well aware of his predicament: his biographer Robert Dean Lurie writes that “Narcosis captured Steve at the tail end of his smack honeymoon: still reeling from the creating possibilities that his new drug of choice offered but also well aware of the darkness ahead.” (p. 221) And Kilbey himself noted that “I realized that this was the same path a lot of other low-life people… had taken. I was becoming that—and at the same time I could still stand back and see that I was. Yea, and seeing how it was going to end up.” So he was creatively inspired by and aware of his situation, and this is perfectly captured in “Somna” which lyrically and musically describes the allure of the drug. Next comes "Limbo" which powerfully describes the plight of those corrupt souls that are not evil enough to be truly punished (being a Pynchon-nerd, I read these as the preiterate in Gravity’s Rainbow – those foax who are neither beneath or below but merely cannon fodder in life’s game):
Jesus does not love you
Lucifer does not want your soul
Made a mistake—
No one will forgive you
The servants you love to dismiss
All will outlive you
The most fascinating words here are from “Fall in Love,” which is an  extremely repetitious song (perhaps to underscore the story?) but tell the story of a man slowly losing all of his passion:
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. ...
Who can describe the agony of this gradual soul depletion?...
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.
Unfortunately, in truly perverse SK fashion, he drowned out these lyrics in double-tracked talk-speak, making them extremely hard to understand. Yet another “what if” moment in the man’s career!

The album closes with SK reading, Rimbaud’s  "Night In Hell" (part of the larger A Season In Hell) over some freaky ambient sounds.  And with this, SK’s uneven Narcosis draws to a close. It would be another ten years until SK was able to kick the smack and find the inspiration into the studio by himself to record Dabble.

(This post is one of a series of reviews of all of SK’s solo albums included in the monsters n mirages box set. Previous post: Remindlessness. Next up: 2001’s Dabble.)

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