Cathal Coughlan has always been one of rock’s outliers.
Operating from the fringes, he’s been a wry and frequently abrasive commentator on society and politics for 40 years now.
Now he’s back with Song of Co-Aklan, an album that sees him doing what he does best, popping his head above the parapet to take pot shots at well chosen targets.
Corporate greed, casual cruelty towards migrants and corrupt politicians are all given a pasting, but there’s more here than just righteous anger.
There’s a sense of reflection in several of the songs, of ennui, of loss and feeling lost among the pressures of modern life and irresistible march of dispassionate, dislocating technology.
The pandemic rears its ugly ahead, but Coughlan is more interested in how we got ourselves into this mess than in the disease itself.
Loosely based around the persona of Co-Aklan, a classic unreliable narrator, the 12 songs here reflect Coughlan’s past career as frontman with Microdisney and The Fatima Mansions.
Members of both bands feature on the record – notably Microdisney co-writer Sean O’Hagan – along with more recent collaborators like Luke Haines, of The Auteurs and Black Box Recorder.
In an interview with EP last month, Coughlan cheerfully describes himself as “odd” and explains how he avoids straightforward storytelling.
Both qualities are in evidence on Song of Co-Aklan, which is both strange and touching in roughly equal measure.
Clearly Coughlan’s brain works in a slightly different way to the average Joe and you can almost hear his synapses crackling as he makes connections across time and geography.
Surreal characters and imagery – a lobster climbing up a crystal palace, for example – populate these songs and, while it’s not always immediately obvious what he’s going on about, repeated listens will be rewarded.
It’s a real pleasure to listen to a genuine writing talent who’s prepared to challenge his audience, rather than idly reaching for a rhyming dictionary.
While his lyrics often expose the monstrous and unsavoury sides of society, they are wrapped in a subtle and elegant musical package.
Luxurious strings add drama to songs like My Child Is Alive!, while the title track draws you in with sumptuous choruses before the lyrics smack you in the face.
There are hints of Fatima Mansions in the post punk guitars of St Wellbeing Axe, while the brooding, funereal second single Owl In the Parlour has shades of Nick Cave.
There’s more biting satire in Let’s Flood The Fairground, which features the most poetic description of public urination you’re ever likely to hear.
The Passed Out Dog exudes theatricality, Coughlan literally adopting a canine growl as he sings “Now I’ve got human bonemeal in my hair, cotton threads between my teeth”.
Images of traps and saboteurs are recurring themes, notably on the deceptively upbeat The Knockout Artist, which features some of Coughlan’s sharpest lines.
““Snap! you wandered into a trap/Watch Poseidon’s jaw flap/ The world wants you back,” he intones, in that seductive dulcet baritone.
Three of the strongest songs – Copper Beach. Falling Out North Street and Unrealtime – deal with themes of loss, and painful reminiscences in achingly beautiful ways.
There’s a tenderness and world weary sadness in these songs that recalls some of the best of his solo efforts.
Coughlan’s abiding love of language shines through on this album and it’s a hugely impressive piece of work.
“The fall of this narrator fitfully approaches,” he croons at one point on the album. On the strength of this record, frankly I doubt that’s the case.
- Song of Co-Aklan, is due for release on Dimple Discs on March 26 and can be pre-ordered here.
- Singles Owl In The Parlour and Song of Co-Aklan are available digitally across online platforms, oncluding Apple Music and Spotify.
- For more about Cathal Coughlan visit his pages on Facebook, Twitter, or check out his website.