Album review: MARY COUGHLAN – Life Stories

Mary Coughlan - Life Stories

Hail Mary Music [Release date 04.09.20]

Mary Coughlan’s ‘Life Stories’ is a beautifully crafted and partly autobiographical work that finds her in reflective mood, some 35 years after her breakthrough ‘Tired & Emotional’ album.

In many ways she’s still “tired and emotional’, but the album sparkles with a survivor’s credo.

She’s teamed up with Pete Glenister who produced her 1990 album ‘Uncertain Pleasures’ and the result is a well-balanced work in which she tempers self-revelation with welcome humour and occasional well-chosen covers.

Her enveloping style is given full reign on the breathy opening title track on which an emotive string section subtly colours her close to the mic phrasing.

She sings uncompromisingly and at times poetically about her own life experiences which bring real emotional weight to bear on her subject matter.

She even manages to infuse the last line of Paul Buchanan’s break-up song ‘Family Life’ with just an extra bit of heartfelt emotion, to suggest the song could have been written with her in mind: “Jesus, I go to sleep and I pray for my kids, for my life, family life.”

Each smoky phrase and the occasional extended vowel are delivered like the proverbial painter’s brush stroke, on an album full of musical contrast which gives the cleverly sequenced tracks an inherent dynamic.

She also mixes clarity of diction with an occasional slurred and world-weary bluesy phrasing to emphasize lyrical meaning. And she even gets playful on the finger clicking, baritone-led, big band jazzy fetish of ‘High Heel Boots’ in a distant echo of Nancy Sinatra. “Everybody says, everybody knows, clothes don’t make the woman, woman makes the clothes.”

She revels in confessionals, safe in the knowledge that she has the voice to slip into a higher register when required, while almost purring on priceless lines like: “A friend in leather, is a friend indeed.”

She arguably saves the most significant track until last, as ‘Twelve Steps Forward and Ten Steps Back’ fully reveals her demons.

It provides the trigger mechanism to understanding the album as a whole, which sometimes feels like tales from the psychiatrist’s couch. Interestingly, the sprightly arrangement is the polar opposite of the alcoholic’s lament.

The album looks back on her life and tries to make sense of it all by mixing autobiographical relationship songs such as the lead single ‘Two Breaking Into One’, with well-chosen covers such as Karrie O’Sullivans’ ‘Elbow Deep’.

The latter is full of ironic metaphorical imagery and provides the kind of shared experience well suited to Coughlan’s interpretive skills.

She’s good at wry humour, as evidenced by ‘Why Do All The Bad Guys Taste So Good’ and also poignant too on ‘Safe And Sound’, both of which serve the conceptual album title well.

She explores all manner of a life lived to the full, through the unflinching gaze of sparse relationship songs such as ‘Safe & Sound’:  “It was always going to end that way, chasing dragons all for pity sake, drown my demons in the hell of drink, catch me as I hit the ground on my way down.”

‘Life Stories’ is the perfect album title which Coughlan moulds to her own ends by incorporating the waltz like single and break up song ‘Two Breaking Into One’. The ebullient musical arrangement even suggests the shattering of a relationship.

The jump style ‘Forward Bound’ feels almost celebratory, but we’re back to the late-night confessional mode on ‘Elbow Deep’. Her intimate vocal style and slurred diction draws the listener into the song, as a string section hovers gently in the wings to wrap itself around Karrie O’Sullivans’ evocative imagery: “Hang out your dirty laundry, you’ll find guilt stains on your sleeve, Elbow deep in the mess you made of me, evidence for anyone who doubted me.”

There’s blues too on the cool shuffle-drum pattern and angular guitar intro to Pete Glenister’s ‘I Dare You To Love Me’, which suddenly ventures into an unexpected big band accompaniment.

Then there’s the throbbing riff of ‘Why Do The Bad Guys Taste So Good’, in Coughlan’s moth to a fame analogy.

‘Life Stories’ is an interwoven old school album. It combines song craft and contrasting, but related arrangements which give her plenty of room to get deep inside the lyrics and the feel of the material.

She revels in Gershwin’s poetic guile on the playful, sensuous, finger clicking 20’s vaudeville style ‘Do It Again’, which contrasts a sharp intro and sinewy guitar tone with a mid-number faux Farfisa solo.

She’s sings beautifully on ‘No Jerico’, confident in the knowledge that she has the range, phrasing and emotional connection to leave her mark.

The simple voice and piano combination brings Susan McKeown’s lyrics to life, especially such ambivalent lines as: “I say farewell to the dark with one last cold kiss.”

‘Life Stories’ is full of hope, irony and guilt at the heart of lyrical song craft, while Coughlan’s mesmerising voice is schooled in jazz with a natural leaning towards blues and shot through with enough folky nuances to make the most of her lyrics. It’s an album that works hard at providing interesting musical contexts for consistently good songs.

And while ‘Life Stories’ might not broaden her appeal, it’s a reaffirmation of what fans already know is a special talent.  ****

Review by Pete Feenstra


David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 BST (GMT+1, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 30 August 2020.

UK Blues Broadcaster of the Year (2020) Pete Feenstra presents his weekly Rock & Blues Show on Tuesday at 19:00 ( BST, GMT+1) as part of a five hour blues rock marathon “Tuesday is Bluesday at GRTR!”. The show is repeated on Wednesdays at 22:00, Fridays at 20:00). This show was first broadcast 8 September 2020.


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