Album Review: billy woods – Church

[Backwoodz Studioz; 2022]

A common theme in the religious narrative around the foundation of a church is the process of martyrdom. Look no further than the cinematic representation to those myths, such as Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring or Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. There’s a power to this idea of balance within the mad architect, of atoning for sins and suffering through a meaningless quest that leads them to the erection of these massive structures that endure time, potentially because this history is written into each brick and minute detail of the building. And that leads to the experience of witnessing a church, of standing in front of it, gazing towards the sky, observing its tall spires, Gargoyles and arabesques standing proud.

That’s why the cover to billy woodsChurch is so loaded and provocative: it imagines the industrial sight of a New York residential building from the gaze of a child. Filled with awe, the gaze is led past rusted steel bars all the way up to windows and outside metal staircases. The image is rife with imperfections, both in its execution (it’s overlit and filled with reflections) and the depicted housing, which feels as if it could come crashing down any second. But like a fossilized creature’s remains, it’s solid in its gargantuan decay. It’s somehow familiar, but lacking any sense of nostalgia.

This sense of industrial awe, of rust and steel, is inherent to every second of billy woods’ new album. His lyricism is as abstract as ever, while the production of Messiah Musik creates an eerie bed of shifting moods, whose hazy and directionless flow create a dream-like effect. It’s not far from Earl Sweatshirt’s most abstract beats, which have more in common with The Caretaker than The Alchemist.

This instability announces itself in the opening “Paraquat”, with its two halves that seem diametrically opposite of each other. Opening on an echo-laden opera singer, abstract synth notes and what sounds like a crematorial oven, the song soon moves to a muffled and slowed down jazz sample. Everything about the track is uncanny and ominous, but there’s also a beckoning quality, as woods slowly unravels dark images of a lost childhood. “We was raised on paraquat, scraped and fought / By the grace of God, everybody else got caught”. The titular chemical is used by the US government on cannabis fields and is highly toxic. It introduces the protagonist’s first experience as a weed dealer, terms of romance and religion flowing in and out of the picture, leaving it unclear if these are unrelated elements of his life, or if there’s a dark parallel in the potential of co-dependence here.

woods is an incredible poet, as his other album this year – Aethiopes – proved. Where that record used stark imagery of space travel and the triangular slave trade to analyze race and heritage as a living mass of shared trauma and apocalyptic visions, Church is more precisely autobiographical – supposedly. woods cleverly obscures his stories in double meaning and thematic allusions.

One example is the recurrent imagery, of nuclear fallouts. “Paraquat” introduces those ideas cleverly: “Loved that girl, but knew we wouldn’t work like Harden on the Rockets / Clouds cleared, I’m looking at the city like jihadis in the cockpit” he raps in the track’s first part, shifting from the name of the Houston Rockets into images of clouds and terrorist attacks. This leads to the second part’s more explicit “Whitey hit Hiroshima, then he doubled back / Black rain baptised, black skies / I’m always waiting on the thunderclap”. This theme of nuclear fallout explodes on “Cossack Wedding”, where the narrator finds himself a dark tourist in Chernobyl, observing the mutated wildlife, only to encounter the ghost of a woman: “She came when I’m sleeping / Breasts leaking, pussy unkempt / Around her the light bent / Spliff hitting right / Light like a opium den / Couldn’t quite see her face / It was like the night moved with a whim”.

It’s important to remember that the earlier vision of a burnt down Hiroshima and urban attacks was aligned with the use of a government employed herbicide, while the Chernobyl disaster was the product of a nuclear plant melting down. The things that give us comfort – electricity and drugs – turn dark and become a conveyor of death, leading to mutations and monsters. It’s woods’ explicit choice to not let the monsters become an other or bogeyman, but parallels that co-exist and interact with us.

The true monsters are the police, which enter the image like hunters, bringing with them images associated with slavers. In “Schism” the Feds bust into the wrong house and shoot a dog, chasing the protagonist out of town: “Waist deep in the swamp when I heard the hounds / Felt it in my bowels” he raps as the sample of barking becomes louder.

Violence is an interesting aspect of Church, as it exists within its own logic. On “Pollo Rico”, the narrator’s uncle recalls how soldiers that died during battle were so numerous their bodies had to be burned. “When the revolution was over, they gave ’em half what they promised / Let’s be honest / And the ones who bust they guns went home to tin cups of tea”. There seems to be no justice for those fighting, no cosmic or spiritual reward in the album’s universe, just a strange sense of uncomfortable shifting – shifting of drugs that go from hand to hand, shifting of bodies during sex, the shifting of atoms that collide and burn bodies.

There’s no direct moment of atonement, of confession or prayer here. Yes, the title of the album could refer to the “casket” around the broken Chernobyl plant just as much as to the actual church described in “Fever Grass”: “My grandfather built God a house in the jungle, laid every brick / Mixed cement out of pain and sweat / Love, self-loathing, fear of the pit / That pitch black repent”. But then this house of God reflects directly on the living situation of marginalized Black families: “House of hunger / Cold stove / Its madness in the cupboards / It’s no table manners at ya cousin’s”.

This notably connects with the line in “All Jokes Aside”, where woods references bell hooks’ childhood recollection of her parents having to boil water to run a hot bath, carrying pots back and forth. There’s a stark difference in the experience of witnessing the self-hatred in the church goers demeanours (“From pulpit, men hurled threats, women’s bowed heads / Sunday at sun-up ’til sunset out the window hummingbirds sip from long-neck flowers / Sway like women’s hips under thin shift under church dress”) and the reality of lived Black experience and history (“My great grandmother was a witch / But they came for poultice when they was sick / They came when baby was labelled “too early to save” but the mother lived / Sugarcane stripped with machete”).

woods’ gaze remains that of the child glaring up at the residential building, which becomes more of a mythical ruin of impossible expectations and lost dreams. Every second and every line of this oddly comforting, mocking, disintegrating, dystopian music weaves the past into a living mosaic where Black identity is the product of a centuries-long process. Some things, like the radiation in Chernobyl, seem to linger and poison the very ground we live on – the things that give us life also poison us. Childhood memories cherished by generations bear witness to struggle and oppression that are so elemental they become accepted as normal. Each is but a brick in the self built monument of personal history.

But within this wasteland, woods finds comfort. On “Fuchsia & Green”, his Armand Hammer partner Elucid raps the chorus: “I walked on water today, I wore fuchsia and green / Before sun called day, a single bird, quiet wing / The question isn’t if there’s a heaven, you see, I maintain / All in the space to make it be, see how the pieces could change.” He could well be the Messiah, but fuchsia and green? Those are the colours worn by the Joker. Every anarchist holds in them the promise of the best of all worlds. And every rebel can change his.