31 July 2003


Having just gotten around to playing Cerys Matthews' Cockahoop, this is another of my "oh, God, Felix thinks he's writing for New Musical Express" moments. But: I feel a vivid necessity to write about it, and you have the misfortune to be the audience. Feel free to skip on to something else; I’m indulging myself.

Catatonia released four albums. Way Beyond Blue was interesting. International Velvet hit the button; it showed Matthews in control, with her mesmerisingly complex verbal games, presence, control and vocal power harnessed together as the engine of the whole band. Catatonia was not just one of the best selling acts, but one of the most literate as well. Equally Cursed and Blessed developed that further; but the first cracks were appearing too. Paper, Scissors, Stone was born as Catatonia died and Matthews disappeared from view; it was somewhat lacklustre, much of the sparkle gone.

But then, early this year, she came back: demons apparently conquered, new solo career, new album due out in May. Also, we were told, a new sound: acid rock behind her, she had taken on country and folk influences. I didn't think it sounded like my sort of thing, but her fightback inspired respect and deserved support, so a couple of months ago I bought not only the new CD Cockahoop but Paper, Scissors, Stone as well.

Both discs sat on the shelf, unplayed, through those two months. Then, yesterday, I thought "oh well; give it a try I suppose" and put on Cockahoop.

The title of the first song is "Chardonnay", which wasn't a good start; for most British listeners, now, the primary meaning of Chardonnay is not a wine or a region of France but a girl's name with overtones of social pretension. The opening bars and words reinforced my dismay, a sweetvoiced, swingalong, littlegirl countrystyle love song:

“Chardonnay, Chardonnay,
How I love you Chardonnay…”

I almost switched off, right there, and put the CD back on the shelf. But, luckily, I didn’t; and it gradually dawned on me that Matthews is playing games again – though in new ways, in a new vein. Under mocking guise of a love song she is probing her own recent past: the Chardonnay of the song is a lost lover, but a liquid one.

“…As I reach to hold you with my trembling hands.
In my hands, my trembling hands,
Chardonnay, Chardonnay,
You’ll be glad to hear me say
I will never need you more than I do now…”

It's hard to imagine anything further from "Goldfish and Paracetamol", the track that first hooked me to Catatonia; but behind the change of face, everything is still there.

The album is a delight, patchy but full of promise and new directions, Matthews as playful and complex as ever despite an almost complete make over. The fierce politics and the acute intelligence which dominated her Catatonia lyrics are still there, but have been moved to backstage while she concentrates on here and now. The title has been chosen very deliberately: this is an exultation at darkness left behind. When it was done, I stood in fact in heavy rain but felt like I’d just walked into April sunshine; which can’t be a bad return on £11.99, can it? Everything on the disc is her own material (or jointly written) with the exception of the last track which is the traditional spiritual “All my trials”; a deliberate arrangement, I’m certain. A phoenixlike renaissance; I'm reminded of the closing chapter of Iain Banks' Espedair Street.

  • Way Beyond Blue. Catatonia. Blanco Y Negro, 1996. 0630163052
  • International Velvet. Catatonia. Blanco Y Negro, 1997. 3984208342
  • Equally Cursed and Blessed. Catatonia. Blanco Y Negro, 1999. 3984270942
  • Paper, Scissors, Stone. Catatonia. Blanco Y Negro, 2001. 8573888482
  • Cockahoop. Cerys Matthews. Blanco Y Negro, 2003. 2564603062

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