- 21 Sep 02
Even at his most flawed, however, Coughlan is a musical blueblood in a world of vinegar-veined pretenders. Long may he reign
Always at odds with the mausoleum of effete waxworks which passes for Irish rock royalty, Cathal Coughlan cuts an even more solitary figure in this glorious jubilee year.
Viewed from atop the slag-heaps of today’s musical wasteland, he looks like a musical Year Zero, with no antecedents, no descendants, no kinfolk of any kind. Yet Coughlan’s desire to make music which speaks with as much passion as it moves was once widely shared in these parts. Unfashionably gifted, literate and opinionated, he has no place in the modern record industry, and compliments don’t come much higher than that.
Since the late ’90s demise of Fatima Mansions, the world’s last truly great rock band, Coughlan has resisted any temptation to become house-trained or gentrified. He remains as impervious to the industry’s neglect as he was, in earlier years, to its commercial blandishments.
Released on his own label, The Sky’s Awful Blue is another collection of his trademark urban folk songs and brooding laments. Though far from wholly-satisfying, the album is nonetheless an invaluable reminder of
Coughlan’s peerless talent. In its sophistication and tuneful riches, it’s also defiant proof that pop music doesn’t have to be dumber than a boxful of rocks.
As with his previous solo endeavours, Grand Necropolitan and Black River Falls, Mansions fans may initially baulk at what appears to be Coughlan’s more mellow, sanguine mood. However, one shouldn’t be fooled by the elegant strings or the jazz-waltz arrangements.
The humour and indignation of his songwriting are as savage as ever. What he once did with brawn and bile, he now does more subtly with balm and wile. Coughlan’s voice, clearly fortified by his sojourn as a singer in a contemporary French opera, has never sounded more composed. He croons with a restraint which suggests supreme confidence in his reserves of vocal
firepower. His latterday diversification into film soundtracks has sharpened his already substantial knack for atmospheric melody, a flair which was often lost amid the squalls and cannonades of his most typically raucous Mansions output.
‘Three Rusty Rivers’, ‘Goodbye Sadness’, ‘Amused As Hell’, and the magnificently epic ‘White’s Academy’ are among the best songs he’s ever written. The influence of traditional Irish balladry on the language and structure on his slow-airs from the fast lane has never been more apparent. His lyrics, which combine the density of poetry with the clarity of prose, are still the most eloquent and vicious in the business.
Unfortunately, The Sky’s Awful Blue has its share of unwelcome clouds. There are a few too many Coughlan-by-numbers dirges for comfort. There’s also a morose uniformity about the tone and tempo of many of the 12 tracks which blunts the impact of the genuinely great songs, and is a surprise from an artist who has always sliced and diced musical styles with the abandon of a
drunken sushi chef.
Even at his most flawed, however, Coughlan is a musical blueblood in a world of vinegar-veined pretenders. Long may he reign.