Cathal Coughlan – Song of Co-aklan – Album Review
by Gavin Carville
Eleven long years have passed since Cathal Coughlan’s last solo album. 2010’s ‘Rancho Tetrahedron’ saw the Cork-born singer continue his exploration of a mostly acoustic palette with double bass, cello, piano and strings, completing a loose quartet of records that began with ‘Black River Falls’. The album was typically accomplished, dealing with religion, abuse, ageing and geopolitics, but, outside the faithful, was met with indifference, and Coughlan, at the time, seemed to suggest it would be his last.
But the subsequent years still saw some excellent work. There was the off-kilter alliance with Luke Haines on ‘The North Sea Scrolls’ and its maverick cabaret live shows. There was theatre work in France with composer Francois Ribac, the songs of which were gathered on Ribac’s ‘Into the Green’, plus live shows in Dublin in tribute to Yeats and Brecht. And of course there was the Microdisney reunion, a ‘shot in the arm’ which rejuvenated Coughlan and got him writing songs again. The band’s four live shows, including a triumphant gig at The Barbican, were gratifying successes, closing the band’s idiosyncratic journey on a moving, celebratory note after its rancorous end in 1988.
In 2020 word emerged that Coughlan was back in the studio, aiming to release his first new work in many years. The album was partially recorded in a London studio but, as Covid spread, was completed using home recording techniques. Opening with the title track, it’s instantly clear that the music is sonically different from Coughlan’s previous solo work. Gone is the double bass, replaced with a thrumming bassline over a crisp, Krautrock beat and some lo-fi synth, the song then bursting into a jangling, life-affirming chorus, tempered by the cryptic lyrics. And the lyrics have always been what sets Coughlan above his peers in terms of their intellectual content and heft. The words of ‘Song of Co-Aklan’ are like absurdist reportage, juxtaposing the West’s obsession with technology, commerce, and scapegoating with real-life conflicts happening mere hours away. So while someone here livestreams their pet hamster, others are forced to eat those creatures while digging tunnels ‘to places of safety’. The song goes on to take in Trump’s border walls (‘Make walls rise where your money goes to die’), the questioning of Obama’s heritage (‘DNA on parade for the rage’), drowning migrants, and even Robert Nairac, the British Army operative who dressed as a cowboy to infiltrate IRA territory and met a grisly end. Coughlan also reminds us that ‘Paris (is) still in India’, a neat reference to a line in The Fatima Mansions’ ‘Only Losers Take the Bus’, suggesting the idiot narrator of that song is still very much in charge, creating a world where people can be ‘homeless and gainful employed’ and if you’re angry then, ‘blame the unwanted’. This brilliant maelstrom of images set against a fantastic pop song sets the tone for what follows.
On ‘Passed-Out Dog’ Coughlan narrates a tale of betrayal and skulduggery where ‘the future was a trick’, his voice in theatrically brilliant form over an edgy, nagging piano, like Sparks fronted by Tom Waits. This gives way to ‘My Child is Alive!’, one of Coughlan’s trademark haunted ballads. An elliptical, picaresque story of a man travelling to the U.S to escape family demons, it’s a lilting, heartfelt tune that, towards the end, abruptly descends into self-help speak delivered through vocoder, a reminder of Coughlan’s experimental side and love of electronic pioneers like Gazelle Twin. This playfulness continues on ‘St Wellbeing Axe’, a tune some might mistake for Fontaines DC, until Coughlan quickly makes it his own. The song is probably the noisiest thing he’s done since The Fatima Mansions, and features their guitarist, the tremendous Aindrias O’Gruama, delivering some discordant guitar over a piece of deconstructed post-punk. This is followed by ‘Owl in the Parlour’, a riveting, sculpted blues song with an immense chorus that announces, ‘Time will erase us, scene by scene/Gone like the fragments of a dream,’, capturing beautifully the album’s concerns with encroaching old age and immobility.
The quality doesn’t waver on Side Two. The nimble ‘Let’s Flood the Fairground’ targets a world where, ‘there’s aliens for blaming and poor folks for defaming,’ while ‘The Lobster’s Dream’ is full of surreal imagery over expert playing from Coughlan’s brilliant band. And then comes ‘The Knockout Artist’, quite possibly the best pop song Coughlan has ever written. Here a decrepit boxer is forced out of retirement for one last fight, but the lyrics also act as a metaphor for late capitalism’s demand for us all to keep working long past our ability to do so. And as the album nears its end, we get two show stopping ballads. ‘Falling Out North Street’ is a bruised and moving account of the helplessness of time passing and past regrets. And then there’s ‘Unrealtime’, which sounds quite unlike anything from Coughlan before, as he sings high over a crisp, Serge Gainsbourg-like bass, ‘Let me know, someone recollects, let me know, I was seen, no surprise, if it’s otherwise’. It’s particularly touching when Coughlan is joined by Sean O’Hagan, whose cracked, fragile voice was often the perfect contrast to Coughlan’s richer vocals in their Microdisney days. Having the two together again compliments the theme of the song of remembering and honouring the past while trying to find hope in a diminishing future. It’s a fitting end to an excellent album from Ireland’s greatest songwriter.
Song of Co-Aklan (Dimple Discs) is released on 26 March