AGAINST NATURE (1989) – FATIMA MANSIONS
Despite rotating at 45 rpm, Against Nature is, for me, the last great album of the ’80s. It appeared right at the end of a decade which left much of the UK drained, dispirited and soul-sick and which had been documented in withering detail by Cathal Coughlan, first in Microdisney and then in Fatima Mansions.
The life and foreshortened times of Microdisney will be another story for another time but, in crude precis, it revolved around the tension between the meticulous, mellifluous music of Sean O’Hagan and Coughlan’s pitiless studies – sometimes direct and unvarnished, as often luridly allegorical – of human cruelty, stupidity and ridiculousness. After their 1985 masterpiece, The Clock Comes Down The Stairs, they were poached from Rough Trade by Virgin, who appeared to believe they had secured themselves their own Deacon Blue, when, in fact, they had on their hands a band which could glide and swoop as deftly as Steely Dan but which was fronted by a scabrous amalgam of Elvis Costello, Randy Newman and Mark E Smith.
While Microdisney’s fourth album, 39 Minutes (its perfunctory, factual title a grudging and sour compromise; the band wanted a far more colourful title) was a fine record, still lyrically excoriating and melodically acute, it was over-embellished in places (unnecessary horns, Londonbeat on backing vocals) and stubbornly refused to yield a hit. Virgin, well on the way to becoming a byword for musical reductiveness and loads of cash, no longer wanted to know.
Coughlan was often compared with James Joyce – well, they were both Irish – but a closer comparison, who also happened to be Irish, is Jonathan Swift. Swift’s Latin epitaph declares that he is now “where savage indignation can lacerate his heart no longer,” a rage articulated in his lifetime through the immeasurably bitter irony of A Modest Proposal (cannibalism as the ideal solution to hunger in Ireland, with children reared specifically for this purpose) and the final part of Gulliver’s Travels, which (Walt) Disney left decidedly alone (Gulliver finds a land run by wise, benevolent horses and populated by the brutish, barely-evolved Yahoos, who, he is forced to concede, are as human as he is. After he’s compelled to return to England, a year passes before he can allow his family anywhere near him and five years before he lets his wife eat with him – even then, only at the end of a long table, while he has his nose stuffed with lavender and tobacco leaves to deflect her Yahoo scent.)
Swift summed his attitude up thus: “I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas and so forth.” Some 250 years later, charges of similar misanthropy would be levelled at Cathal Coughlan; certainly, his incandescent stage persona was of a piece with his lyrical ire and at times you could wonder if the phrase “doesn’t suffer fools gladly” had been coined in a Microdisney live review. Yet interviewers continually reported finding an affable, approachable character, at odds with the creator of lines like: “I know they’re fools, they’re my only hope/When would you like to kick in my head?”
When he started again with Fatima Mansions, named after a notorious Dublin housing scheme, he was liberated from the Microdisney house style and able to wander where he would – Sean O’Hagan would be similarly galvanised in the formidable High Llamas. Against Nature was a decisive statement of intent and unleashed an enviable musical palette which was the ideal canvas for Coughlan’s parade of grotesques, encompassing rockabilly, disco and chamber pop – but genres be hanged, its twitching brouhaha is magnificently impossible to pin down. With Aindrias “Grimmo” O’Gruama as his new foil on taser guitar, more emphasis could be laid on Coughlan’s humour, which often went unnoticed or was at least underplayed. This happened as much to him as to Morrissey and the one-time accidental labelmates had far more in common than either might have been prepared to admit.
It’s there in opener Only Losers Take The Bus, which fades in to the sound of a good ol’fashioned landline ringing, and to a full-throttle electrobilly rhythm, has its pompous tyrant of a narrator proudly displaying his knowledge: “Can you draw the Chinese flag? It’s, er, three blue lines and six dahlias/Paris is in India,” depressingly foreshadowing scores of reality TV types.
The Day I Lost Everything kicks off with a – more of a monologue than a rap, embracing Jimmy Tarbuck, Santa Claus and a fall downstairs before embarking on a story of justified paranoia (“Don’t even think about not answering your phone/It might be me – and I know you’re always home” set to verses made of tungsten and choruses made of ambrosia. The pace slows on the wintry Wilderness On Time, where the synth-harpsichord heard on Only Losers… is the sole accompaniment to a romantic encounter that probably isn’t (“When I look round your eyes/There’s a space at the sides/Where ten more eyes could hide.”) I’ve no idea if it’s a personal song but I once, at King Tut’s in Glasow, heard Coughlan berating a hapless individual who had been singing along to it and was exposed when Coughlan took a longer-than-on-the-recorded-version pause before the line “my genuine Celticness shines.” It’s unlikely he’d ever invite a crowd to hold their phones aloft, which is exactly how it should be.
You Won’t Get Me Home is a partial return to Microdisney terrain, with a querulous live feel and palpable rage at Aids persecution “You’re not your own executioner -NO!). The album’s most controversial song, 13th Century Boy, has to be heard in the context of its time – Stock, Aitken and Waterman productions were omnipresent and repeatedly, sometimes lazily, held up as the embodiment of all that was evil. This song lampoons their MO with fiendish accuracy – Rick Astley or Jason Donovan could easily have had their vocals imposed on the backing track, though maybe not singing lyrics caricaturing self-denying ordnances (“You are the reason why I try to tend this fertile void”). As such, it now shows its age somewhat but appeared in different garb live as a full-band detonation, although there doesn’t appear to be a surviving recording of this online. It was a double-A sided single with the tempestuous Blues For Ceausescu (written quickly following the Christmas Day execution of the Romanian despot and an early exercise in expectation management as the Soviet Bloc disintegrated). It could have been massive; if it had been, it would almost certainly have been the end of Fatima Mansions, an unrepresentative albatross they might never have been able to lay to rest (see also: Lazy Sunday).
Bishop of Babel is also of its time, veering dangerously towards what was never called in the ’80s a power ballad, but it survives by virtue of a faultless organ solo and one of Coughlan’s gentler satires of religion (“We don’t talk the same, so we don’t talk at all/And our hosts just look on with glee). More punkabilly on Valley of the Dead Cars, which appears to start with an encounter with a homeless woman and just keeps getting bleaker. Coughlan has frequently drawn on Ireland’s restless history and here he refers to Skibbereen, the town in his native Cork which became synonymous with the agony of the country’s 19th-century famine and as a honky-tonk piano rollicks and Grimmo’s feedback caterwauls, , he concludes with possibly the saddest lines he’s ever written: “At the mouth of a flooded mine/I will embrace you hard/And we’ll wait for the sun to shine.”
Musically, closer Big Madness is pure balm, a log fire against the lyric’s blizzard of a killer bragging of his exploits (“Yells and laughs: they all wanted it/It was easy, so how could it be wrong?”). In its washes of synth and Coughlan’s rich, expressive voice – he could be the most underrated vocalist of the past 30 years- it echoes two of his most prominent influences, the Beach Boys and Scott Walker. In fact, his trajectory is in many ways similar to that of Walker, whose odyssey took him from his sumptuous but twisted orchestral opuses of the ’60s to his increasingly layered and impenetrable works of the last three decades, finally going as far as anyone’s ever been on 2012’s Bish Bosch. For its final minute, it segues into the Pet Sounds-against-the-poll-tax instrumental Monday Club Carol, named after a think tank renowned for a lack of enthusiasm on matters of multiculturalism (Fatima Mansions were originally named the Freedom Association, after another group in a similar region of the political spectrum).
Fatima Mansions would become stormier and narrower; by 1992’s Valhalla Avenue , Seattle had eaten the world and there had been a convergence of sorts between them and the mainstream. This was a problem; they now sounded like many other people, whereas their earlier greatness hinged on the fact that they sounded like nobody else. They reasserted themselves on 1994’s briiliant Lost In The Former West; then, suddenly, it was done but Coughlan continues to challenge, confront and needle with his righteous anger and often-overlooked compassion intact.
We now live in a world that thinks it’s beyond satire, which it thinks can be blunted with shrugging insouciance, know-knothing knowingness and the wilful, all-pervasive, 2+2= 5-style equation of criticism with hatred. Because he can penetrate these shields, the work of Cathal Coughlan, past and present, is more important than ever (PG).