||22 April 2011
At the end of Gavin Friday’s last solo album Shag Tobacco he sang, 'The Last Song I’ll Ever Sing'. Given that it is sixteen years since the album’s release, for a while it certainly seemed like it might be, at least in relation to his solo work. He busied himself in those sixteen years with a host of other projects and collaborations, scoring soundtracks and stage plays with kicking partner Maurice Seezer and old friend Bono, acting in Kristen Sheridan’s Disco Pigs and Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto and appearing in numerous events orchestrated by renowned music producer Hal Willner, such as Came So Far For Beauty: An Evening of Leonard Cohen Songs and the Rogue's Gallery album. But there was no mention of any new solo material or signs of a return to the studio until the events at Carnegie Hall on October 4th 2009.
Friday had insisted in his younger years that he wanted to play Carnegie Hall before he was fifty, and so for his fiftieth birthday, long time collaborator and producer Hal Wilner put together an impressive list of guests to realise this desire. Revisiting his lifetime’s work at Hal Willner Presents: An Evening with Gavin Friday and Friends with musician pals such as Lou Reed, Courtney Love, U2 and his old band mates from the Prunes rekindled his desire to write solo material again. He recently stated that he has written several albums worth of material and that the gap between this and the next album will be considerably shorter.
The past sixteen years had offered no shortage of subject matter to inform new songs. His father had passed away, and with him a complex and conflicted relationship that went back to Gavin’s youth. An ailment restricted his mobility for over a year and his marriage to his childhood sweetheart had ended. There was also the breakup of another important relationship; Maurice Seezer had left the picture, ending a collaboration that began in The Blue Jaysus Club back in 1987 and sustained all of Friday’s previous output. Whether this split will be long term remains to be seen.
When news of Maurice Seezer’s departure hit, it was unclear how the new album might sound. But Friday’s brand of gothic cabaret and ambient pop was starting to take shape even before the arrival of Seezer and the demise of his first musical excursion The Virgin Prunes. This was especially evident on their last album The Moon Looked Down and Laughed, the band’s first without forming members Guggi and Dave ID. It was Brel by way of Bowie and Scott Walker, but seedier and more in keeping with the morbid nature of Brel’s own approach. With the help of Willner and Seezer, his first solo album Each Man Kills the Thing He Loves was a tour de force, all piano arrangements and strings and a sense of theatrics that remained from his time in the Prunes, along with a more cabaret type approach that continued through his solo work and his live performance.
With the aid of new collaborator Cork composer Herbie Macken, and legendary record producer Ken Thomas who has worked with David Bowie, The Cocteau Twins and Depeche Mode among others, the new album continues this stylistic approach, but catholic sounds markedly more mature and honest than prior outings. The lyrics are personal, and have more substance, and he benefits from letting his guard down. The strong exterior that existed before is replaced with a strength of admittance in his lyric, one’s flaws, one’s regrets and one’s desire to move on, and the music is slightly less of an act.
The cover, showing Friday draped in an Irish Flag lying in a coffin, is not as provocative as he might be attempting. The Virgin Prunes used animal carcases as part of their stage show, now pop stars wear meat dresses to awards ceremonies. It is obvious though before we hear content that this album is about laying things to rest. Friday is no stranger to utilising death as a subject, whether it is interpreting Brel or Dylan, or his own many musings and never has it seemed so integral to his work. The death spoke of here is experienced, and has caused Gavin to ponder his own mortality, which makes it more poignant this time round. Death is approaching and acknowledgment of this fact can be cathartic and revelatory. The title doubles as a nod to the religion that has had so much dominance over the country and era he grew up in, but also with its small “c” he is reclaiming the broader meaning of the word, as all the themes here are universal.
The album kicks off with 'Able', the track Friday offered as a free download some months before the album’s release, a generous offer considering the quality of the track. The opening is reminiscent of many of the bands Thomas has worked with in the past, with menacing synths and swirls before Friday’s seductive voice makes its appearance. It’s defiant but vulnerable, and that vulnerability and sensitivity persists throughout the album. The following track 'Land on the Moon' is a melancholic lullaby with Ken Thomas’s daughter Amy Odell contributing some beautiful vocals. It’s elegant and uplifting, centred around the plea, "Don’t let it make you cry, it can’t be all that bad." Friday’s expressiveness juxtaposes with her ethereal voice, and his harmonies linger in the background, giving weight and further beauty to the track. He has always been an accomplished vocalist, and here he is a virtuoso, he has never sounded better. His voice is capable of so much emotion, at times deep and sombre, and others high pitched with a range that veers way into the cosmos.
In 'Blame' he takes responsibility for difficulty in relationships, "I even loved my father"– resolving their complex love. The song is just one of the many examples of a more mature Gavin, exorcising the pomp of old, a kind of therapeutic relay to the empathetic listener. 'It’s All Ahead of You' utilises strings to strengthen the poignancy of the theme, there is sadness but the voice and lyrics are considerate and heartening. Gavin has always manifested charisma and swagger, but there is little evidence of swagger here, his charisma is intact, but the swagger has drifted slightly into the background. It surfaces briefly on 'Perfume', a track that wouldn’t sound out of place on Shag Tobacco. 'Epilogue', with the refrain, "the best is yet to come", could mean his life here, or as he sang on Each Man Kills the Thing He Loves, 'Death is not the End'. The last 'Lord I’m Coming' is a tremendous finale, a grandiose epic. There’s organ, and when he repeats the title at the end it begins to sound like a mantra, much like 'Epilogue' before it, and we consider the church or a funeral before the album draws to a close.
The prospect of a new Gavin Friday album was always going to be an exciting one, but catholic is truly revelatory, the best Irish album of the year so far, and a career high for Friday. It doesn’t sound unlike previous albums, the same influences are still evident, they’re just not as pronounced. These songs are confessional and honest, and by making it so personal the themes become universal. There is fragility and vulnerability here, but the outcome is uplifting and affirming. It’s a sombre reflection, where things can be grim, but ultimately there is a sense of having prevailed.
- Ray Burke