Devon Church – Strange Strangers
Devon Church is a singer-songwriter hailing from Winnipeg, Manitoba and based in New York City. He was, for many years, a multi-instrumentalist, co-writer and producer of the dreampop duo Exitmusic, whose album, Passage (Secretly Canadian), Pitchfork described as “insurgent, cinematic, and sometimes brilliant.” In 2018, the same year that Exitmusic released it’s swan song, The Recognitions (felte), Church released his solo debut, We Are Inextricable (felte), which employed the textural electronic elements he had harnessed during the Exitmusic years in the service of a songwriting style rooted in the folk rock tradition, with deep nods to Cohen and Dylan. Having gigged throughout the US in 2019 (opening for the likes of Orville Peck, Adam Green, Kirin J Callinan and Black Marble) Church set to work recording his latest offering, Strange Strangers, while seeking refuge from the global pandemic in a barn in rural Pennsylvania.
After his apartment in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint burned down, Church and his partner (now wife) Ada Roth relocated to Manhattan’s northern tip, where he would spend days wandering the woods and gardens surrounding The Met Cloisters. His time there (they’ve since made it back to Brooklyn), his deepening relationship, and his growing interest in Buddhism provided the album’s moodboard. The opening track, “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” is an ironic complaint sung by an itinerant Adam & Eve to their absent father, a kind of gnostic protest ballad in waltz time. While Church was certainly raised in a Christian home, he explains that his use of biblical imagery is often a foil for other cosmic messages – gleaned from psychedelics, love affairs, Buddhism and Kafka – and an homage to the tradition of classic songwriters. Meanwhile, Flash of Lightning in A Clear Blue Sky trades in some classic Buddhist metaphors while simultaneously seeming like it is being sung to a lover. The lyrics perform dual-duties throughout. They could be interpreted as songs of either spiritual or romantic longing – and homecoming – or both simultaneously.
The largely self-produced album sounds as if Apollo-era Eno had wrested the controls (and the handgun) from Phil Spector halfway through the recording of Death of a Ladies Man. The atmospheric elements of Church’s past productions are sublimated throughout the album, put into the service of tape-saturated vocals, combo organs and guitars. His voice, grown more confident and understated since his debut, still ranges from a laconic Lee Hazelwood hangover to a smoky growl, but it smooths out nicely on tracks like the intensely melodic and propulsive ”Flash of Lightning in a Clear Blue Sky.” The angelic backing vocals by Roth (who also co-directed two delightfully strange videos for the album) lend an aura of dreamlike lightness in contrast to the baritone of the album’s world weary narrator.
A sense of cosmic black-humor has crept into Church’s lyrics, which deal with a sort of bewildered pilgrim’s progress through various spiritual and material Bardo states. “Jesus was a genius,” sings the Adam character in This is Paradise, “but I prefer his early stuff.” And on the languidly psychedelic ”Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” in the midst of a string section and what sounds like a choir of monks, Church reflects lysergically on selfhood itself:
Slouching toward Bethlehem
Giving birth to myself again
Wondering where my body begins
And where the bacteria ends
Strange Strangers borrows its title from the Marxist eco-philosopher Timothy Morton: ‘The strangeness of strange
strangers is itself strange, meaning the more we know about an entity the stranger it becomes.’ On Ephemera, Church seems to lament the mysterious unknowability of these objects of our deepest desires and fears, but he does so with defiant exuberance, his ecstatically strummed acoustic guitar threatening to go off the rails. “I was weary and you took me in your arms,” he sings to the other (a lover, a god?). “I couldn’t see you, but you held me like the light holds the dark.”For tour dates and more visit: www.instagram.com/wearedevonchurch