The Death Of Co-Aklan – Cathal Coughlan, gone…

GEORGE HENDERSON pays tribute to former Microdisney and Fatima Mansions singer-songwriter Cathal Coughlan.

Today I was woken with the news that Cathal Coughlan, one of my most obvious, and most useful inspirations as a songwriter, is dead, at the age of 61, after a long illness.

This came as a shock because his recent work was as full of vitality as anything he’s ever done. And because there are very few heroes of my youth who I’ve kept up with, or, I should say, who’ve kept up with me… yet Cathal was still streets ahead, an uncatchable figure in the distance, leaving a trail of devastating music, both emotionally and sonically.

And now he’s gone, and his music, rightly, looms large in the consciousness of his fans.

I wrote about Cathal and Microdisney, his first and best-known band, in 2012 for Simon Sweetman’s blog. “They should have been huge, but it’s easy to see why they weren’t. Too Irish, too angry, too intelligent, and too musical to win over the masses, they stayed the darlings of John Peel, the NME, and I…

Sean O’Hagan’s rolling guitar patterns, Cathal Couglan’s perfectly chosen synth chords and that voice – surely the richest, sweetest, loudest, most compelling voice in the whole of rock – wryly, sadly, angrily telling of a series of perfect little sketches of disenchantment, disillusion, and a weary disgust that would rise to gale force on the later albums.”

Rather than repeat myself or recap a history that will be easy to find elsewhere, I want to submit this review of Cathal’s recent solo project Songs of Co-Aklan.

All you need to know, perhaps, is that Cathal was studying in County Cork to be a doctor when he discovered drugs and the music of The Fall. From this, perhaps, he gained both the pathologist’s eye that observes the subjects of his songs, which include himself, and the sonic ambitions and tendency to obsession of another failed med student, Hector Berlioz.

If that other great Irishman of my generation, Shane McGowan, wrote in a sheen of intoxication, Cathal’s eye was that of the merciless hangover that exposes all pretension and dresses harsh truths in worse hallucinations.

This eye is present throughout the 2021 album Song of Co-Aklan, and its follow-up EP, which was released last week. I’ve complained before that artists aren’t paying attention to the world around them, that we lack decent films or songs about lockdowns, or QAnon, or any other obsession of the news cycle. Right out the gate, Song of Co-Aklan’s title track drops us into the online world, and the modification of history and reality by the internet:

“An Executive Race, expert in an instant,
Short cut to the chase for a screen-reading ace”
And the deterioration of politics into populism:
“Raise your hands, form a continental wave
Turn on the hysterics for old men without merit
Make walls rise where your money goes to die
and when you’re prompted, blame the unwanted”

These scathing summaries of current affairs are somehow mixed up with prognostications and hallucinated visions of Irish and Imperial history:
“That city is gone, just rubble and sunshine
Space-time is retooled, six governments rule…
Raise your hands if you don’t know what this means,
no silicon fixes, just Kitchener’s britches.”

I still raise my hands, but I also know what’s going on. Cathal’s bass player on this song is Luke Haines, who once wrote “I’m not a historian, I’ll say what I want to”, which could be Cathal’s motto too. To paraphrase another great Irishman, history is the nightmare from which he’s trying to awake. Song Of Co-Aklan rushes forward in a torrent of musical modernity, with its synths mirroring the infernal engine of its lyrics.

‘Owl In The Parlour’ is another track about the connected world, observations of a QAnon truther and race theorist set to a doomy, bluesy waltz:
“On the hunt for Hitler’s bitcoin with my pal in Tennessee.
He waves those flags not made in China, explains the dollar bill to me.
Time will erase us, that’s the truth.
Loves, lies, locations, wisdom, youth.
Time will erase you, seems to hurt.
No-one need replace you or your curse.”

The complexity and grandeur of the arrangement here is awe-inspiring, and throughout Song of Co-Aklan we hear rock composition at a level to match the best orchestral music. There is a great deal of bile and anger on display, but there is also, as always in Cathal’s best work, much tenderness, in tracks like ‘My Child Is Alive’, a study of male guilt and self-deception.
There are also songs that, when we know they were written by a dying man, make even more sense, like the industrial rant of ‘St Wellbeing’s Axe’, a witty curse on the wellness industry, which features the scorching, discordant guitar of Cathal’s old Fatima Mansions bandmate Aindrias O’Gruama, or ‘The Knockout Artist’, about an ageing boxer forced into one last fight, with its soaring melodies and uplifting bass line, as neat a tune as Cathal had ever written.

If the idea of facing a work this intense and fearless deters you, know that Song Of Co-Aklan is also one of the most musical albums you’ll hear, that its 12 songs include much in the way of pretty melodies, emotive chords, lovely playing, and tunes that are hard to forget. Plenty of people make savage soundscapes that are their own raison d’etre and have little else to say, but Cathal always had enough to say, and enough emotional maturity to say it in a variety of ways. I’m old and wise enough to be sick of people getting angry at me when I listen to music, but Cathal was always the exception, the man who’d proven himself, who had earned the right to make me feel uncomfortable.

Song Of Co-Aklan was followed this year by an EP of songs left off the album – the standout being ‘Laszlo Plantagenet Loves The Sun’, with some wonderful spy film guitar licks from Luke Haines. It’s a song that seemed to sum up Cathal for me, inventive and delirious, taking another side-eyed look over the Empire, both old and new.

Cathal Coughlan gave us music for our time as very few have. For this alone he deserves attention, but there’s also a rich body of past work, including pop masterpieces like Microdisney’s The Clock Comes Down The Stairs and Fatima Mansions’ Viva Dead Ponies, records that still thrill with their promise of new themes and new sounds, with their willingness to shake us out of complacency and share with us some wayward truths. Song Of Co-Aklan is in their league – the man went out on a high.

* George Henderson is a distinguished NZ singer-songwriter associated with The Puddle, The New Existentialists, The Amps, The Spies, The And Band and more. Oh, and he writes brilliantly for the likes of Newsroom and Witchdoctor.

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