Monday, 6 July 2015

From madness to sadness (or, the greatest album you won't buy this year)

Click to buy "A Comfortable Man" by Cathal Smyth
Cathal did not blow his Madness royalties on sleeve art

Cathal Smyth has taken a sabbatical from the day job to record and release a solo album. I say solo, since the day job in question is "being Chas Smash out of Madness". And whilst the voice is unmistakable (unless you mistake it for Suggs), the twelve songs on A Comfortable Man go beyond the maudlin end of the Madness spectrum - this may be heavy, heavy, but it is not a monster sound, nor is it one step beyond. But it is bloody good.

As an album, it very much wears its heart on its sleeve - Cathal separated from his wife in 2005, having been together since their teens, and it feels like A Comfortable Man is the product of ten subsequent years of pain. Here is a man of a certain age who, despite success on so many levels, is struggling to reconcile the fact that the fundamental cornerstones of his life have not worked out as he would have liked. As such, his debut solo album seems ideally placed to appeal to middle-aged men who cannot help but think that life has gone wrong, gone astray. And Cathal sings of this difficult period with heartbreaking honesty. Ten years is a long time, but this is still raw for the artist formerly known as Chas.

The album opens with You're Not Alone, and my immediate reaction to it was that it would be a perfect album closer - a serious lyrical topic and a sombre, piano-led tune that becomes increasing uplifting would be a perfect way to close. But I soon realised that half the album falls into that category. It also sets the tone perfectly, just in case any listeners hadn't got the memo and were still expecting something akin to The Nutty Boys.

Title track A Comfortable Man puts me in mind of Johnny Cash singing Hurt, but through a North London filter. Cash received plaudits left, right and centre for Hurt. Smyth's Comfortable Man will pass under most people's radar. It's a tough old world, but Cathal has learnt that already.

By far the most upbeat song on the album is recent single Do You Believe In Love?, which managed at least one airing on Radio 2. And whilst musically upbeat, even that includes the couplet "Do you believe in love? I don't believe it's true." This tiny flower of positivity is crushed before it can bloom though by the next track, Love Song No. 7. Here, more than anywhere, Cathal is, I believe, singing directly to his ex-wife, and there is a crack in his voice almost from the opening line. How he can perform this live without getting something in his eye I do not know (but he does). Here are the opening lines:

My heart is in pieces,
It's lying broken on the floor.
My days are so empty
Without you in them any more.
My senses, emotions, my feelings
Are all bruised and torn.
My mind is in torment,
My soul, it wears a crown of thorns.
My colours have all run dry -
There's no sun up in my sky today.

It's a beautiful, if painful, song, and Smyth is to be applauded for such honesty. This is how it feels.

That honest pain continues with possibly the best song of the lot, Are The Children Happy? Smyth again ploughs the divorce furrow in the song's verses but comes up for air in the chorus, which asks simply "Are the children happy living without me? How I wish we could have spoken honestly." In the same way that Elbow tapped into a market of middle-aged divorced men by singing about the seldom seen kid, I think Smyth's songs would really take off... if only they were more radio-friendly. And that's the only problem, really - I can immerse myself in Smyth's melancholia all day long but it is a painful, upsetting album in places and, as such, isn't for everyone. Consider penultimate track All My Loving - sample couplet: "My love for you with never fade. I give you all my love in vain." Definitely not for everyone.

In an album where two thirds of the songs would be good closing tracks, the actual final song, The Wren's Burial, does not disappoint. Except for me it hardly feels like a close, because I have had this CD on repeat play in my car since the day I bought it.

It's only July, so it's a bit early to call this as my album of the year... but it's going to take some beating. I'm going to see Madness in September. Chas Smash will not be there, but that's okay - I can live with that, when this is the spectacular compensation. It might not have been on your radar before this, but I urge you to invest in A Comfortable Man. I do not believe you will be disappointed.


  1. And I thought listening to Mr Rossiter was grim...but great at the same time.

    1. It certainly couldn't be called easy listening mate, but it is damned good - a very satisfying album emotionally.