catholic

A haunting contemplation of the ageing process

Death is not the great unmentionable in pop. From car crash sobaroonies like ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’ or ‘Dead Man’s Curve’ to nu-folk murder ballads, from rock star self-implosions at 27 to Ballardian mash-ups, gangsta shootouts and drug ODs, death has had more than its fair shake. Even Gavin Friday’s best known song ‘Angel’ could be interpreted equally as Romeo & Juliet madrigal or the Genet-meets-Brel fantasia of a man having congress with a winged wraith.

No, in pop the great taboo is age. The culture venerates the young and the susceptible and makes fun of artists in their autumn years. It’s a dystopian vision of TOTP-as-Logan’s Run, and the in-built obsolescence clock gets turned back further every year. Leonard Cohen quoting Tennessee Williams, “Life is a faily well written play... apart from the third act. The third act doesn’t turn out too well for anyone.”

Gavin Friday is in his early 50s, which is the prime of life for a painter, writer or filmmaker. But catholic, his first set of original songs since 1995’s Shag Tobacco, is bathed in twilight shades. A lot happens a man between 36 and 52. Death, divorce, moving house... It’s all here. catholic’s blue velvet curtains open on Friday as Baritone Man intoning, “Don’t tell me you love me/ I can feel your rage” over a stark electro throb and trick backdrop courtesy of musical collaborator Herbie Macken and producer Ken Thomas (Cocteaus, Sigur Ros). Echoes of Yeats writing about the violent heart tethered to a dying animal, while the musical policy is sui generis nocturnal-futurist, with Friday’s yearning half-falsetto melodies drifting past moonscapes lit by neo-ambient and late night club pulses.

It’s a serious record. The cover shot depicts the singer corpsed and draped in a tricolour, halfway between an SS general and a fallen cardinal. Mr. Friday, it should be noted, sports Bishop John Charles McQuaid’s episcopal ring for bling. If he once tartly likened the Catholic Mass to glam rock, with its purple robes, smoke bombs, dry ice and death cult trappings, catholic evokes the solemn grandeur of the high Latin Mass.

There’s a lot of wisdom here, but the kind that comes at a price. ‘It’s All Ahead Of You’ is the album’s best shot at a modern standard, with Beatles strings and a chorus that sounds like it was found in the stalls at Carnegie Hall, misplaced by some postwar ghost. These are the songs of a man who’s lost a few things. From ‘Land On The Moon’ to ‘A Song That Hurts’ to ‘The Only One’, catholic sounds mostly fragile, vulnerable, uncertain – although never exactly frail. Only one tune, ‘Perfume’, echoes the strut of old. The rest – the slow country sway of ‘Blame’, the minimalist mantra of ‘Epilogue’ (“The best is yet to come”) and the Cocteaus-y ‘The Sun & The Moon And The Stars’ – are preoccupied with endings.

Most notable case in point: the closing ‘Lord I’m Coming’, a majestic coda with naked vocal backlit by a modern classical arrangement, not so much gospel/spiritual as foxhole prayer. Strings ebb, an idoru’s aria drifts into the ether, fade to black. You’re on your own. Time to get right with God.

 

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