Cathal Coughlan has died: between euphony and pessimism

Cathal Coughlan has died: between euphony and pessimism

Irish songwriter and bandleader Cathal Coughlan has died. Obituary for an underrated artist.

Singer and composer Cathal Coughlan at the microphone

Cathal Coughlan in concert at London’s Southbankcentre, April 2016 Photo: Amy T. Zielinsky

New Wave as a lifesaver? At least, that’s how singer/composer Cathal Coughlan put it in the song “Give Me All Of Your Clothes”: “I went to college / and I was so messed up / but I found New Wave / and so I was saved.” Song was featured on Crooked Mile, his band Microdisney’s third album, released in 1987. Coughlan formed the band in 1980 with guitarist/songwriter Sean O’Hagan.

The two met in their Irish hometown of Cork and quickly bonded through their unusual musical preferences – Beach Boys plus Punk plus Country. Together, the two Irishmen created an amazing oeuvre of sophisticated pop songs in the musically rather poor second half of the 1980s.

Far from the usual offerings of the time, from the coke-pop-rock consensus, from sixties retro-escapism, from post-punk or new metal, Microdisney songs thrived on the apparent contradiction between exquisitely composed and executed friendly euphony and unworldly pessimism texts.

With that, their second album “The Clock Comes Down the Stairs” in 1986 made it to the top of the British indie charts. This brought a contract with the major label Virgin, which did not lead to the major charts, but rather to nowhere, whereupon the band broke up and Coughlan and O’Hagan fell out so badly that both sides had one in later years future reconciliation was initially ruled out.

So both went to extremes: O’Hagan finally indulged his passion for Brian Wilson as an external co-worker with the London band Stereolab, with the US artist Jim O’Rourke and with his own band The High Llamas and released an album about an album with chilled, wistful beach sounds. Coughlan was impressed by grunge and realized with the Fatima Mansions an almost anti-musically aggressive noise vision – “driven by alcohol and caffeine”, as he later revealed – which absurdly brought the band to the opening act of a U2 world tour.

By the noughties, Coughlan had settled down and was coming back as a soloist who found a sort of Brecht-Weill way of morphing his diverse inclinations, concerns and talents into one big whole. His powerful, round baritone had gained a not unattractive, soft hoarseness through years of angry shouting. With a band that included Fatima Mansions drummer Nick Allum, cellist Audrey Riley and multi-instrumentalist James Woodrow – the latter two otherwise active in electronic music ensemble Icebreaker – he released a series of solo albums with menacingly- dark, excellently composed songs that set the standards for how adult song music can sound in the 21st century.

Mature narrator of well-constructed stories

The excesses of anger of earlier years lurked deeper, but above all Coughlan presented himself as a mature narrator of well-constructed stories. However, they were poisoned: full of depravity, incest, conflagration, terrorism and turbo-capitalism; Religious institutions, global banking syndicates, and multinational rulers played critically lethal roles.

Unfortunately, hardly anyone outside of the British Isles noticed. But somehow, and not least thanks to cultural institutions such as the Edge Festival in Edinburgh and the funds that his hometown of Cork received as European Capital of Culture in 2005, Coughlan was able to continue to afford ambitious projects such as the song cycle “Foburg” published in 2006 and finally also together with the Australian author Andrew Müller and Luke Haines – best known to indie rock historians as the head of The Auteurs – create the fun and clever album The North Sea Scrolls (2012). His songs tell an alternate history in which Ireland is the dominant power in the British Isles, oppressing and belittling the English.

Eventually, Coughlan reconciled with Sean O’Hagan: there were Microdisney reunion concerts in 2018 and 2019, and Coughlan sang on O’Hagan’s solo album Radum Calls, Radum Calls (2019). Coughlan’s latest album, Song of Co-Aklan, released in 2021 and as brilliant as ever, features O’Hagan as well as a number of other collaborators such as Jon Fell (Microdisney), Luke Haines and Aindrías Ó Grúama (Fatima Mansions). Shortly thereafter, the album “a hAon” was released by the electronics project Telefís, which Coughlan ran together with U2 producer Jacknife Lee. Cathal Coughlan died on May 18 after a long illness.

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