Notably acerbic and widely regarded as one Ireland’s best ever lyricists Cathal Coughlan has fronted two of the seminal bands of the ’80s and ’90s – Microdisney and The Fatima Mansions. Since the break up of the latter there has been sporadic solo releases and collaborations, however, it’s been more than a decade since we have had a new album from Cathal Coughlan – the man who once so eloquently stated “Go to England, baby-raper, false economist, call yourself King Charles III, nobody will notice, nobody will be alarmed”.
But back he is with ‘Song of Co-Aklan’, an album which could easily have been overburdened by the high expectations the return of such a legendary figure in Irish music would engender. However, those expectations are not only met but surpassed sublimely, with a marvellously eclectic collection of songs which showcase flashes of their creator at his zenith.
Here Coughlan prowls through a strange and otherworldly landscape populated by crow mothers, unconscious dogs, dreaming lobsters and countless other uncanny characters, with a musical backdrop which is always inventive and often deranged, but completely accessible. Providing these theatrical notes are a magnificent troupe of musicians consisting of former cohorts from Microdisney – Jonathan Fell & Sean O’Hagan, along with Fatima Mansions powerhouse Nick Allum, previous collaborators Luke Haines and the Grand Necropolitan Quartet and a host of new partners including Audrey Riley, James Woodrow and Rhodri Marsden.
The title-track provides an almost blithesome opening which sets the tone for what’s to come, with its animated chorus crying out ”Raise your hands if you don’t know what this means” an indication of how off-balance Coughlan and his troubadours will keep us throughout. The dramatic urgency is taken to even greater heights on My Child Is Alive! a tale of noir-esque intrigue which is brought to a superb, cacophonous climax. Crow Mother revels in its macabre anthology whilst St.Wellbeing Axe sees Coughlan railing against numerous targets – always a delight.
Coughlan takes on numerous personas throughout ‘Song of Co-Aklan’, from showman to preacher, to prophet and confessor. The lines are constantly blurring, are we listening to fables or are we hearing stories rooted in reality? The answer is probably a bit of both, as we are treated to a carnival of baroque creations, delivered by the singer’s imposing voice which drifts gorgeously between tenor and baritone. One thing that can’t be argued, is that despite the sense of dread that pervades, this is bizarrely a largely upbeat album and easily the closest thing to a Microdisney record that we’ve seen since their demise.
This is perfectly illustrated by The Knockout Artist a bright, rollicking track that bounces along despite the fact that it tells the tale of a damaged man who owes his success to his routine of punching himself unconscious in the ring to the adulation of the masses. The perfectly laid-back Falling Out North St. is a beautiful reflection of times past, even if a sense of ennui is ever-present.
A feeling of unease continues on Unrealtime, its final refrain “Life stories lost, unrealtime…” is a perfect summation of an album that drifts into the mists of your mind like some uncanny dream, but one which compels you to return and experience it’s strangeness, again and again. With ‘Song of Co-Aklan’ Cathal Coughlan has triumphantly re-emerged with an album which combines the many elements of his various musical pursuits in a way which is compelling from first note to last.