Black River Falls
By Rick Reger
One of the most apt terms ever applied to Irish-born singer-songwriter Cathal Coughlan is “churl.” He leads a side project called Bubonique and entitled one of its records Trance Arse Vol. 3. He’s fond of song titles like “Ray of Hope, Hoe of Rape” and “Be Dead,” and he’s got an audible jones for those high priests of churlishness, Ministry.
But Coughlan is no ordinary boor. Unlike your average death-metal howler or punk outcast, Coughlan has sprinkled his 17-year career with sophisticated, exceptionally melodic songs that snub “rock” for a more refined compositional style, a la Jimmy Webb or Scott Walker. And while he’s stuffed his songs with seething personal diatribes over the years, Coughlan also has evolved into a gifted narrative lyricist whose portraits of misfits and ne’er-do-wells can rise to the level of insightful short stories.
It’s this dichotomy between rude provocateur and refined artiste that’s made Coughlan’s career so fascinating to watch. Unfortunately, since his music has always gone against the grain of contemporary rock, few have bothered. When Coughlan advocated killing police in his 1991 song “Angel’s Delight,” or depicted Margaret Thatcher as a monstrous copulating gargoyle in 1992’s “Something Bad,” neither the music press nor moral conservatives batted an eye.
Coughlan’s headlong rush to obscurity began in 1984 with his band Microdisney, an engaging group destined for oblivion until cofounder Sean O’Hagan hit it comparatively big with the High Llamas. Back when postpunk guitar gremlins like the Jesus and Mary Chain, Husker Du, and the Replacements were defining rock’s cutting edge in terms of decibels and distortion, Microdisney released its ironically titled debut album, Everybody Is Fantastic, which brimmed with songs so quiet, melodic, and elegant they made the Smiths sound like Iron Maiden. But those lovely, wistful melodies were paired with crotchety expressions of disgusted resignation and contempt, and in a period when real singing was decidedly out of fashion, Coughlan belted them out in a rich baritone brogue better suited to Broadway.
Although Microdisney’s limpid, embittered music would probably fit nicely into today’s more effete indie underground, in the mid-80s it was mostly ignored or loathed by the cognoscenti. The group went on to make several increasingly polished and sometimes dazzling records–including two for Virgin–but eventually split after Coughlan and O’Hagan realized they were evolving in two different directions.
Coughlan resurfaced in 1989 leading Fatima Mansions, a ragtag quintet named for a dingy Dublin housing project. As grunge loomed, Fatima Mansions turned out to be almost as unsuited to its time and place as Microdisney had been. The band’s early singles and its debut mini LP, Against Nature, contained a weird mix of punchy, new-waveish rock and gorgeous, despairing keyboard-based ballads. A faithful B-side cover of Ministry’s “Stigmata” only confused listeners further.
The band’s eclectic magnum opus, the 1991 album Viva Dead Ponies, was ignored too, but in hindsight it stands up as one of the more accomplished and confrontational records of the decade. It pummels and charms its way through a dizzying range of styles, from punk metal (“Blues for Ceausescu”) to atonal electronica (“Concrete Block”) to catchy synth pop (“Broken Radio #1”) to baroque pop (“Pack of Lies”) to art rock (“The White Knuckle Express”). On paper it might seem like an incoherent mess, but thanks to Coughlan’s imposing voice and assured songcraft, wistful dejection and black-hearted venom sound like two sides of the same coin. Lyrically, Viva Dead Ponies captured Coughlan at his most compelling. Dragging listeners by the throat through a sordid, soulless urban landscape, he spewed molten anger (“Burn, motherfucker, burn,” he sings on “Angel’s Delight,” “Just come on come on come on / I’ve got a word for you / Dead!”) and painted grimly detailed portraits of pitiless government lackeys, addled street urchins, and smugly duplicitous lovers.
The final two Fatima Mansions records, Valhalla Avenue (1992) and Lost in the Former West (1994), contain some strikingly tuneful songs. But Coughlan increasingly edged away from the diversity of Viva Dead Ponies in favor of a more monolithic and savage attack.
A contract dispute with Fatima Mansions’ record label, Radioactive, forced Coughlan to keep a low profile for several years, but he recently reappeared with a solo LP, Black River Falls, on the British Cooking Vinyl label. Predominantly acoustic and often gracefully orchestrated, with strings, woodwinds, piano, and occasional drums and bass, it’s the most reserved and elegant record Coughlan has ever made. There’s no trace of Ministry-esque throb, no distorted, violent vocals, no anachronistic new-wave keyboards.
Neither is there much softening of Coughlan’s vision: as song titles like “Dark Parlour,” “Out Among the Ruins,” and “Cast Me Out in My Hometown” suggest, Black River Falls is as grim a dreamscape as any Coughlan has visited. But aside from the folky “The Ghost of Limehouse Cut” and the ambient-jazz number “The Bacon-Singer,” the tunes are mostly melodic ballads. And where Coughlan once raged at society’s ills through a mix of arch storytelling and profane invective, on Black River Falls he delineates the plight of the hapless with the cool, literate objectivity of a foreign correspondent. It’s as if he’s adopted the mantra preached to all budding writers: show, don’t tell. He evokes the dark side of human nature using a reportorial style that scrupulously avoids shopworn subject matter.
On the hushed, brooding “Officer Material,” one of the most beautiful examples of orchestrated pop in recent memory, he describes a government agent leaving the scene of an accident she’s deliberately caused. Coughlan sets the words to a gorgeous wash of strings and delicate acoustic guitar arpeggios. Though the music at first seems to clash with the lyrics, it actually underscores the moral ambivalence of the protagonist:
It’s 3:20 in the morning
And the car is in the tree
The journey, apparently, is over
Lover boy lies prostrate on the wheel
She could pass for ten years younger
Running down that country road
The first sound she’s aware of is her footsteps
The smell of smoke and diesel from her clothes
She could pass for ten years younger
If she showed any sadness or fear
If she shed drops of sweat, or a tear
Even when Coughlan revisits familiar themes–like the idea of being roused in the middle of the night by government thugs, which pops up like a recurring nightmare throughout his discography–they’re more resonant than before, more universal. Note the careful ambiguousness of time and place in this scene from the title cut:
The horses came at 2 AM
Their manes flayed the window pane
And they bore me off to a muddy plain
Where the villages were in flames
And we rode all night
For they would not turn
Though I begged and cursed and wept
And they delivered me on to some
Who punched me until I slept.
And Black River Falls isn’t all death and destruction. It offers a few musically and thematically lighter moments–at least by Coughlan’s standards. On the jazz-tinged, bittersweet “Payday”–which actually seems to bemoan the revitalized Irish economy–Coughlan’s narrator is a veteran dole recipient lying in bed after his lover has left to collect her paycheck.
And it’s payday up on Blarney Street
And the mystery returns
To the bookie shops and pharmacies
And the mystery returns
No whiskey, no amphetamines
But the mystery returns
And you’re gone like a cloud
Left me here to my countdown
Obviously, Coughlan isn’t the first songsmith to pair up woebegone tales with lush, sophisticated music–Tom Waits and Nick Cave are masters of the style. But his thematic concerns and inviting lyricism give Black River Falls a distinct personality. His direct, pop-derived melodies have a gravity that Jimmy Webb’s rarely achieve, and his lyrics–even at their most cryptic–are far more concrete than those in Scott Walker’s recent work. Though it’s likely some longtime fans will miss Coughlan the churl just on principle, it turns out his surliness was masking a startling depth and searingly vivid sense of drama.