]Well, it’s finally here. Wall of text behind the cut.
Next up: Fight Like Apes - The Body of Christ and the Legs of Tina Turner.
At least two of these posts (three if I decide to count late-to-the-party; more if I forgot something at 3:33 a.m. Christmas Eve when I wrote this) will be about Irish albums. None have gotten much press outside Ireland. Looking at the non-Irish best-ofs, there’s Villagers, which I was perhaps too hard on, but a couple listens and I haven’t heard anything worth shouting about. A handful of lists have Imelda May’s album, and if you told me two years ago that out of all the Irish female singer-songwriters to make the jump, it’d be her, I’d stand agape.
Outside of Ireland, Cathy Davey’s third album, The Nameless, is fairly unknown (well, except for one Google News site, claiming to be from California, that scraped Lauren Murphy’s best-of. I don’t know why either.) It’s a shame. Something Ilk had a few great singles and mush. Cathy disowned that and released Tales of Silversleeve, where they all were great singles. And then, thrillingly, she decided to outdo herself again and release a great album.
Hot Press had a great interview with Cathy last summer, which unfortunately you can’t read in its entirety because it’s on Hot Press and thus behind a paywall. Here’s the part that directly pertains to The Nameless:
I was in an apartment that belonged to a lady who lost her husband to cancer, and before he died they were setting up this Romanian school of death rituals, and they were looking at death in a very unique way. She was a very philosophical, beautiful woman, very much about living now, and loving as hard as you can now, and being there for people, now. She had photographs of her husband around, and some of them were photographs of him after he had passed away.
“But his absence was really there, solidly, filling the house entirely, and that’s why the album is about what it’s about. It’s about a woman who has lost her identity, through losing someone that she loved, because that’s what I was going through. And it was far easier projecting it onto this other woman, I didn’t feel like I was vomiting my own emotion onto people, that would not sit well with me.
“Projecting” is selling herself short. Cathy doesn’t just project onto the woman; she becomes her, and a lot of other people besides The Nameless is a character study in thirteen parts, as she clutches at identity after identity. None of them are new for her, mind you. There’s a lot of cabaret on the album, which she hinted at on Silversleeve with “No Heart Today” and “Harmony.” The Spector influences come from “Rubbish Ocean” (and, uh, Spector). But where all those songs seemed tacked-on — figuratively and literally; they’re in that mushy last third of the album — The Nameless is fully realized. There are a dozen identities, all different, but they’re all unmistakably Cathy. Only one other album moved me as much this year, and that one had two years to do it.
Take the title track, a Child-ballad haze of ghostly backing vocals and guitars plucked to sound like harps, through which Cathy paces like a Gothic heroine and murmurs lyrics about wildflowers, graveyards and sinking beneath waves. So far, so familiar. This stuff is centuries old.
A couple reviewers said the song’s about a woman losing her identity after losing her lover. That’s the idea, but it’s juuuuust slightly off. She loses her lover and her identity, but it’s because he wanted it that way when he was alive, and she’s just carrying out his wish. I’ve never understood the concept of pet names — loving someone enough to diminish their name is just backward — but I’d take any of them over “nameless.” The situation adds layers of resentment, guilt and grief that wouldn’t even be subtext otherwise. You hear it in the hesitation on “I cannot tell,” where it’s unclear whether she’s forbidden to tell why she denied him or whether she just doesn’t know anymore, or which is sadder. It’s in the resigned twinge on “this I know, I know full well.”
Of course, she can’t really be anonymous; not with that voice. Cathy was never a timid singer — the high B in “Come Over” is proof. And the voice on “The Nameless” is unmistakably hers. There’s the throatiness that got her compared years ago to Cerys Matthews. There’s the near-childlike inflection people pick up on more nowadays. There’s the part where she spits out that last “my heart denied what you would call me” at least a dozen decibels above anything else. She could have fixed that in the mix. It’d be easy. A minute, tops. But she does the same thing again at the coda, chewing every syllable and spitting them back. It’s theatrical, but more than that, it’s vicious.
Then she disappears into the mix, a chorus of Cathy-specters flitting in and out with oohs and swoops. It’s all pretty and spooky and what you’d expect out of a death ballad, but it’s unresolved. You can’t help but wonder what else the ghosts would say if given words.
Probably something like “I’ve had enough” — the first petulant words of “Army of Tears”. All that anger has to be sublimated somehow. How about Brechtian bombast about drowning everything and everyone beneath torrential water which oh right is your TEARS? Sure, why not?
If any track on The Nameless would turn you off on first listen — or hell, on premise — this would be it. It’s mannered and melodramatic, and Cathy goes from intoning the lyrics to showily belting them, mostly skipping over regular singing. Less charitable people would call it pretty damn emo. But I’m really charitable when it comes to Cathy Davey and theatricality. The spoken-word parts are exactly what I wished Bat for Lashes’ “What’s a Girl to Do” sounded like. The belting is exactly what I secretly wish every singer sounded like. You have to admire how she takes a cliche (“cry me a river,” anything comparing tears to a body of water) and blows it up 800x until it looks new again.
All this sound and fury really does have a purpose. Notice the backing vocals; they’re Cathy in her guise that sounds like a battalion of maurauding kindergarteners. It’s fitting; you can just hear the childlike glee she takes from all this (“Lookie, I made an army!”), how she phrases it in picture bookisms like “they grew up big and tall” and the question-answer format of “And what do you suppose they would do?” Even the conceit is out of children’s lit; I know I’ve seen it somewhere.
And not to get all pop-psychology, but if you strip away someone’s identity, what’s left behind is perhaps a lot like a child. A child plopped down amidst a lot of adult feelings. How would she deal with them? Maybe she’d play dress-up, turning herself into something bigger and stronger that can take them. I mean, she’s a fucking pirate queen! Flooding the world and causing mayhem is just what she’s decided to be when she grows up. Who could blame her?
But then, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Her fantasy self has to sail alone, she mutters, doomed to freeze out there. Later, once all the flooding and killing is underway, she whispers, “My army.” It’s either pride in their accomplishments or sarcasm that this is all she’s got. You can Pygmalion up soldiers and make them pledge allegiance to you, but you can’t have an army without, at some point, them leaving. And revenge and bitter rage make poor company, especially when you’re still not sure what they’re company for.
Now we come to the album’s second part. I’m arbitrarily chopping it up; half these songs were written in different countries, and the other half, who knows? But tracklistings aren’t accidental. The past two songs are personal; the only other characters in them are dead or soon to be dead. The next three are interpersonal; they’re about reaching out to others, letting them in and shutting them out. Both are coping mechanisms. None of them quite work.
This all begins with that most useful of genres, the infatuation song. “In He Comes” is among the most beautiful offerings on The Nameless. Each listen reveals something else to swoon over. The melody is gorgeous. The tinkling bells on the chorus are gorgeous. The backing vocals are gorgeous. The transition into the second chorus, 1:10 to 1:35, sweeps me away like little else this year. This paragraph took me hours to write because of — well, because of procrastination, but also because the song was on loop and I had to stop to take it in.
In taking this in, you’ll notice immediately that Cathy reins in her singing. Hot Press calls it a “geisha vocal,” which is just wrong (unless there’s a reference I’m missing, but I’ll gamble that there isn’t.) It’s the kind of studied lilt, full of scrunched-crinoline turns, that folk revivalists love. But where someone like Katy Carr would juxtapose it against lyrics about druggies and screwing, Cathy places it in more or less its original context. “I’d give you all a body could receive” is technically direct, but it’s the kind of come-on spoken by someone unfamiliar with them. She gets comfortable in the role as she goes on — each subsequent iteration of that verse is more lascivious — but this is still clearly infatuation from a distance. She can’t even bring herself to say a name, preferring to hum and lean into the syllables like she’s demonstrating what Carol Ann Duffy meant about her lover’s name rhyming with everything.
These are all typical of infatuation songs, of course. She wears T-shirts, he wears silken raiment. He’s separate and cool, well-oiled and turning, self-sufficient; she’s got no gravity, no home to go to (or is that part of the come-on?) She’s always running, like a child. More specifically, she’s running like a girl. There are two ways to parse this: girl meaning child, female; or girl meaning female, period. Then, tellingly, the demo has her singing “let me be a woman too.” The song is basically an attempt to adopt a woman’s identity, generic, but Cathy’s character doesn’t quite get it right; the voice is either too hesitant or just too into it. This isn’t a failing of Cathy’s — half of Something Ilk has her as the ingenue — so it must be on purpose. She grasps at femininity but comes up with the studied kind, all courtly vocals and windy settings that dwarf you. It’s beautiful, but it’s nothing to rebuild an identity on.
If being an ingenue doesn’t work, there’s always the femme fatale. “Habit” is kind of like “In He Comes” to an extreme. The lyrics invite a whole parade of men to creep inside her house (for the dense, Cathy later alters this to “creep inside me.”) It wouldn’t be out of place in a noir, or at least a Danger Mouse song, with its slinky background rattling piano. (It’s also the most fun to sing.)
There’s the same scroinching in and out of gender roles, specifically the ones that tell women to stay away from said extreme. The song wouldn’t work without that sense of transgression; the break in the sentence after “I know I shouldn’t want” is no accident.
More menacing, though, is the utter emptiness behind it all. What else do you expect from a song that starts out “I have no joy” and goes on to call itself “a way to make it through the day” (with her voice dropping, as if she’s trying to hold back a feeling)? It’s another desperate experiment, the premise being if letting one person in doesn’t solve the grief, why not many? And it doesn’t work. Her doesn’t vamping sound dangerous so much as resigned. “Leave your keys out in the door as you leave,” she sings, but she can only sing about leaving if she knows they’re all going to.
So maybe letting people in isn’t such a good idea after all. I’ve written about “Little Red” already, but I’ve got a few things to add anyway. The message goes down much easier if you parse it as something she’s saying to herself, not Girls Everywhere. (She’ll do that in the last track.) It’s that old-but-still-cool trick of making a bouncy pop single about mortal fear: in this case, the kind that makes you close yourself off. Notice how she sings “you’re better off to do that walk alone” — the standard BE CAREFUL GIRLS narrative recommends the buddy system — and that the last stanza recommends, basically, insomnia. When you listen to it this way, the chord progression seems more like twitching back and forth, and everything goes far too fast for its bounds. Cathy wrote this, she said, as a game of sorts to distract herself from. There’s plenty of joy in this, but I wouldn’t, if I were you, look at it too closely.
Up until now we’ve more or less been in the realm of the fantastic, the archetypal — a realm where noir heroines and seaswept lovers, balladeers and Little Red Riding Hood are perfectly at home. This is deliberate. It’s so “Happy Slapping” can devastate you more when it crashes everything into the real world.
A note of warning, first: the song’s fairly lo-fi, but if you could handle “Fallen from the Sky” by Glen Hansard, you can handle this. I strongly recommend that you do. This is the core of The Nameless, a monologue by the main character as herself about life without her partner, spoken to — well, it’s never really clear. Sometimes it’s to him, sometimes it’s to herself, sometimes it’s to imagined onlookers or an imagined audience. It’s never really clear, either, whether he’s alive or dead at this point, but it doesn’t matter; she’d plausibly have this muddled. We get concrete, real-life details. The line about how she’d “laugh at the prime-time jokes, pretend that they relate to me” is great, as are all the absurd, mundane worries (eating a healthy lunch?) that consume her.
And Cathy nails every nuance of the acting. If I listed every example this post would get even more absurdly long than it already is, so I’ll limit myself to two. First, as she imagines the neighbors finding her after hypothetically giving up. “I know she used to sing, but now she talks to buildings — yeah, she’s doing swell without you.” It’s a great bit of dark humor, and you can just hear the wince at the end, the slight mockery she imagines and the reason she’s imagining mockery in the first place.
That’s just a warm-up, though, for the scariest moment I’ve heard in music all year. That would this: “Does it make you scared to die? ‘Cause that’s what keeps me up at night: lying stiff for several days with nobody there to say ‘wake up, honey — oh, you’re dead.’” Cathy whispers the last of this, completely sotto voce. Then everything cuts out except the drums and this absurdly cheerful whistling that crept in underneath the verses. It slays me. Every time. The song does eventually reach the catharsis it must — the “screw it, I’ll just fake being happy! I’m doing great without you!” exclamation, but the damage is done. I still get chills from that damn whistling.
Where can you really go from there? As much as I love the album, the next few songs will They’re all good songs. Single “Dog,” although the album’s weakest track by far, is pleasant enough, and the understated “Bad Weather” is good enough for any torch singer. Then there are the twin vice songs of “The Touch” and “Wild Rum” try to out-bawd each other (the latter wins because of one line; you’ll know it when you hear it.) They’re all steeped in loss, as you’d expect. But they’re really just ways to fill the time until “Lay Your Hand” comes on.
Shane at The Torture Garden, in praising The Nameless, noted that there wasn’t much “heart-on-her-sleeve romance” on it. Sure there is; it’s just concentrated in this one track. In one sense, it’s the same song as “Mine For Keeps” off the first album, or possibly what Cathy was poking fun of on Silversleeve with “Overblown Love Song”; there are certainly enough sweeping strings here to qualify. But “Overblown Love Song” wouldn’t have worked if it itself wasn’t a gorgeous love song. “Lay Your Hand” just refines the form. There’s not much to say except that it’s simple and perfect. It’s also redemptive, the only track on the album not haunted by loss. It’s fulfilled, and it paves the way for “Universe Tipping.”
“Universe Tipping” works best if you think of it as the final track, with “End of the End” an epilogue. There’s a finality to the music, both in music and lyrics; here, Cathy’s character loses all the guises to finally let herself feel the grief they concealed. Fellow Irish band Tychonaut released a double album, Love Life, in 2003; it’s one of the best of the decade. Why do I bring it up? Its first two tracks, “Steel Wheels” and “Defiance,” are, at least in part, about failure. But “Steel Wheels” is the most obviously rebellious of the two — more energetic, has a lyric about punching the face of life — where the latter just feels and wonders. “Universe Tipping” works the same way. True defiance is letting everything get to you, but eventually it’s what must be done.
The album closes with “End of the End,” less a song per se than a dreamscape of swirly backing vocals and non-standard tempos for Cathy to wander through. Perhaps her character is dead here, or just wandering in that direction. Perhaps it’s years later, or decades, or just a few minutes. It hardly matters; she’s found respite in this way, practically a ghost herself.
 jeez did I really procrastinate that much
 That would be Crooked by Kristin Hersh. It’s a long story. You’ll see.
 Before you go all HETERONORMATIVITY OFF, it’s almost certainly a man when you take the rest of the album into account.
 including myself; my sister and I used to have belting matches over musical theater OSTs. By “used to” I mean “this afternoon” and by “musical theater” I mean “Aldonza”. Nothing like family tradition!
 and Neil Hannon of fellow Irish band The Divine Comedy, who Cathy is dating. Good, now I’ve got the trivia out of the way.
 There’s a Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle story like this — is that really what I was thinking of?
 Does Dollhouse count as pop psychology? Probably just nerdery. Which is why this is a footnote.
 If it weren’t for “Army of Tears” also being a single (and Cathy having name recognition, at least in Ireland), people could be excused to think The Nameless is one of those retro-songwriting jobs.