Gavin Friday used to be a bit more regular in his releases. Between 1977 and 1986, he released three albums and a handful of EPs with his post-punk/goth act, The Virgin Prunes. And as a solo artist, he was even more regular, releasing a new album every three years: Each Man Kills the Thing He Loves (1989), Adam 'n' Eve (1992) and Shag Tobacco (1995). But after that, silence.
Well, relative silence. While not releasing any albums, Friday remained active musically for the next decade, landing songs on soundtracks (Romeo + Juliet, Mission Impossible, Basquiat, and Moulin Rouge! to name a few) and doing work on the scores for other movies (Angel Baby, The Boxer, In America, and, surprisingly-at least to this reviewer-the 50 Cent quasi-biopic Get Rich or Die Tryin'). But for all intents and purposes, it would have appeared that Friday had hung up the role of performer to become a soundtrack musician. This turns out not to have been the case.
catholic (and yes it's with a lowercase c) is the first proper album that Gavin Friday has released in 16 years. As a word of introduction (both to dispel any misimpressions derived from the title as well as to gloss its deliberate lower-case-ness), Friday notes that the album isn't religious, "but there's a spirituality about it." His use of the term, however, is in its original Greek sense: universal-though the more common use of the word is inescapable for Friday, an Irishman who grew up Catholic. "The small 'c' is my way of claiming [the word] back," Friday notes about his album's title. The subject matter of the album, loss, underscores this universality. The 16 year interval in Friday's life since Shag Tobacco has been filled with illness, divorce and the death of his father. It's no surprise, then, that Friday describes the album as "waking from a deep sleep, of letting go and coming to terms with loss."
Musically, it's a bit of a departure from his previous solo releases. His first two solo albums are Weill-inflected poppy goth numbers (with occasional hints of industrial music) and Shag Tobacco is a darker, eerier, more foreboding album than its predecessors, with higher highs and lower lows than either. catholic, though, is a bit more somber. Describing the soundscape of the album itself as "catholic," Friday compares it to a "velvet mass." And this seems a fitting description: while there's a darkness to the album, it's a warm darkness that wraps itself around you like a thick blanket at night. Dark, pulsing, insistent and ethereal, catholic finds itself to be a more even-tempered album than its predecessors and Friday's performance is mellower, his voice older, his tone sadder and resigned, but hopeful.
The entire album is a synth- and string-heavy affair, reminiscent equally of Echo and the Bunnymen and U2 at its quieter moments. Friday's voice even sounds somewhat like Bono's (though perhaps it's Bono who sounds like Friday, as the two have been friends since childhood and Friday is even the one who gave Bono his name [Bono Vox, from the Latin bonavox, or "good voice]). The comparison is rendered somewhat moot, however, as Friday's voice modulates from a Bono-esque croon to a late-era Cohen growl, though the production job by Ken Thomas (Sigur Rós, Suede, David Gahan, Cocteau Twins, Depeche Mode, The Damned, Modern English, among others) evokes memories of Eno/Lanois productions of U2 albums (especially in the first few songs, "Able" and "Land on the Moon"). One might even go so far as to say that this is the best U2 album that U2 hasn't recorded this past decade, though this is a harder fiction to maintain the further into the album one listens.
Lyrically, the songs move between the sad and mournful ("A Song that Hurts") to the loving ("Land on the Moon") to the hopeful ("It's All Ahead of You") to the redemptive ("The Best Is Yet to Come"). As such, the album feels more thematically contiguous than Friday's previous solo releases (namely the experience of loss and the process by which one comes to terms with living with a loss). And while not every song is a winner (I'm looking at you, "Where Ya Go? Gone"), the album largely holds together sonically, being on the whole a rather mellow and relaxing album to listen to while winding down in the evening. And it might be the best thing Friday has ever done.
He retains his classic "heart on sleeve" style, but adds a new layer of depth and emotion to this batch of songs. They're a little deeper and compounded by years of hardship; finally, Gavin Friday has emerged back into his solo light. And that light shines brightly on a performer who leaves his artistic mark on everything he touches. The song and video for "Able" exemplify Friday's knack for theatrics, the video taking on a visual representation of the themes present in the song: inner struggles, fighting yourself and desire for betterment. And if Friday's style is a bit over-the-top, it's a style that he's perfected over the years. catholic is the culmination of years of struggle, delivered in the artistically theatrical style of Gavin Friday that makes him unmistakable - and irreplaceable.
Favorite tracks: Land on the Moon, It's All Ahead of You, Blame, The Best Is Yet to Come.
Reviewer Bio - Andrew McNair works as a technical writer in Seattle and has produced the OnlineRock Podcast since it began in 2008. He's always at a loss when people ask him to describe his musical taste, since he claims to only like "good music," even though he's aware that "good" isn't terribly helpful allowing people to ascertain whether they would enjoy the podcast or not. His tastes tend to skew toward pop, roots and electronic music: give him a catchy melody, and he's happy. For perhaps a better idea, his top three albums (in no particular order) are Marvin Gaye's What's Going On?, The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and XTC's Skylarking.