Cathal Coughlan: Song of Co Aklan
A decade has passed since we heard any new music from the inimitable Cathal Coughlan. The drought has been broken and we can all be sated as we drink from the fountain of the genius that comes in the form of alter ego, Co Aklan and the album heralding his arrival in Song of Co Aklan.
I don’t bandy that word about loosely. To liken him to a genius suggests huge expectations to be met. But I sincerely believe in what I write. From the opening bars of the albums title track, you are drawn into the world of Co Aklan, perfectly obtuse lyrics with a deeper meaning, alongside Coughlan’s welcoming dynamic vocal.
Cathal Coughlan is perhaps the most under-rated artist of his generation (and for that matter, before and beyond). From the early days with Microdisney, through the sheer caustic brilliance of Fatima Mansions, to the astonishing Bubonique with comedian Sean Hughes. He has latterly added to his burgeoning catalogue with a series of superb solo albums. Cathal has built up an astounding body of work throughout his career. This latest magnum opus, Song of Co Aklan, is a welcome and thoroughly impressive addition to this collection, the quality of its songs pushing it up there with the best of them.
That voice. Cathal has a voice that any crooner would die for, he can turn on a ha’penny, changing delivery mid-song, inflections helping with the characterisation and storytelling within the tales. His warm brogue can lend its voice equally to the empathetic, just listen to the stunningly beautiful album closer Unrealtime, and the biting and caustic. Often within a song from one couplet to the next. He can change to deliver coarse humour and, matching the reserved empathetic passion he has the ability to portray, he can be equally biting and acerbic in his vehement outpourings – the bruising St Wellbeing Axe, for example.
Then there is that aforementioned characterisation and storytelling in his song writing. The man has an unmatched poetic finesse. The pictures he paints with his deft use of language are astonishing. As a fan of song lyrics, that was one of the things that first drew me to Microdisney and Fatima Mansions. You can’t help but fall in love with the poeticism that runs throughout this new album. There is nothing obvious, derivative or generic in his songsmithery. It often takes a few listens to contemplate and deduce what he is saying with his use of allegories and imagery. The lyrics are clever and well considered without ever being contrived. Take the title track and the likes of the beguiling The Lobsters Dream as a case in point, enjoy the lyrics and the time you will take unfolding and discovering the messages within.
Cathal’s voice and lyrics deserve a platform equal to them to display the unique artistry he displays. Thankfully, the complex arrangements and musicianship provided are a perfect match for the poetic masterpieces created by our main man.
The group of musicians he has gathered on this album is nigh on untouchable. Notably going back to his Microdisney and Fatima Mansions roots with Sean O’Hagan, Jonathan Fell and Nick Allum. Also being joined by The Auteurs Luke Haines with his distinguished background, taking in Black Box Recorder. Other musicians include Rhodri Marsden, James Woodrow, John Bennett and Audrey Riley many of whom Cathal has historic connections with, in the likes of The Grand Necropolitan Quartet, and with backgrounds including the likes of High Llamas & Scritti Politti. Whether the song needs understated strings, or forthright strident guitars, the musicians are perfectly attuned to Cathal’s wavelength. Nothing is out of place, nothing is overblown, every piece has a perfect arrangement and balance to match the songs.
The resultant combination of that sumptuous opulent voice, the complex songsmithery and the outstanding musicianship results in one of the high points in Cathal Coughlan’s career to date. This album will never be far from my turntable throughout 2021. It’s a pleasure and privilege to have the music of Cathal back in my life.