With Thierry Henry making his first appearance in an Arsenal shirt since 2007 this week, it’s been quite a nostalgic time for those of us of a Gooner persuasion. But I was taken on a separate trip down memory lane on Saturday afternoon as Jo’s dad dropped us at the train station prior to a night out. The reason? John had Radio 2 on and Cerys Matthews, once of Welsh rock band Catatonia, was sitting in for Dermot O’Leary. Her breathy Welsh tones taking me back to a time when Cerys was voted sexiest woman on the planet by readers of Melody Maker. And the rise of Catatonia’s star was, in the words of the song Game On, “a certainty”.
As with most things musical, I was a bit late to the Catatonia party, in fact you might say I got to it just as they were seeing the last guests out of the door and starting the washing up (or discussing leaving it till the morning). That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but 1996’s Way Beyond Blue passed me by without me knowing it- despite a couple of cracking tracks there. And the first singles from International Velvet, a year or two later, left me cold. Well, Road Rage just sounded like a colossal amount of moaning and Mulder and Scully*? How dare they write a song taking the two heroes of the X-Files name in vain? I didn’t have much of a sense of humour back then.
But something happened at some point after that. I can’t remember what. My cd collection tells me that I might have bought the single Strange Glue, released around my 21st birthday, fallen in love with it and decided to buy the album. Which sounds a bit mental, bearing in mind I had little love for the two previous singles but, back then, it was something I did quite often. Anyway. Just after buying that album, I headed off for a a year’s study in Bilbao. In theory. The reality was somewhat different. And miserable.
Anyway, International Velvet came with me and by the time 1999 came around, I’d made a few friends. But my time in Bilbao really turned around with the arrival of an English art studio called David Rose. He couldn’t speak a word of Spanish (well, probably “hola”, “gracias” and “cerveza”), but he didn’t care. Unlike me, who could speak Spanish but did care, ridiculously, that I couldn’t speak as well as the natives.
David Rose loved Catatonia and gradually, I came to really love them too. The Welsh language stomp and swagger of International Velvet had us singing along to the “Every day, when I wake up, I thank the Lord I’m Welsh!” refrain. Of course, the only bit we could sing along to. We loved that. I Am The Mob had us bellowing along to its cracking opening line, “I put horses heads in people’s beds, cause I am the mob” as we walked the streets of Derio. There was wit writ large all over this exuberant album, but it was the last couple of tracks that really cemented the album’s place in my heart. Strange Glue and My Selfish Gene were, and are, beautiful tracks and, over the Christmas break had come to assume a personal significance for me.
Equally Cursed And Blessed seemed to arrive with indecent haste, but then I’d been a bit slow on the uptake with International Velvet. And reviews were not universally encouraging. I remember David Rose and I being outraged by a 7/10 review in Melody Maker. As with Blur’s 13, I think the downbeat feel of the new album was just what I needed at the time. Unlike Blur’s 13, this LP hasn’t really stood the test of time. At least, I don’t think so, having listened to it this morning. The humour in the lyrics- when they’re not complaining about something- is, largely, not matched by the music.
Dead From The Waist Down still sounds impossibly heartbreaking. But the album almost ends there, with its first track. It’s not until the second half of the album, that the beauty emerges. And how. Bulimic Beats is gorgeous. Another heartbreaker, I think it’s probably my favourite Catatonia track. It wears its vulnerability so well that Cerys, backed by a delicate harp, can sing the last line of the song, “A front line with labels where I witness custard’s last stand, here I am” and you don’t laugh at it. I never cared much for Valerian but the soothing nature of the song is needed after the heartbreak of “Bulimic”. Shoot The Messenger goes for a bit of a Space style skank. Like most of the album, it sounded good in 1999, but I’m not so sure now although Cerys’s vocals are playful. In a good way.
The stage is set then for the closing two tracks, Nothing Hurts is a worthy addition to the canon of Catatonia’s most beautiful moments, although its lyrics suggest that the opposite of the title is true. I felt a bit tearful as I listened to it, whilst stuck outside Lewisham station this morning. Dazed, Beautiful and Bruised then closes the album out in very defiant fashion- it seems like the first time Cerys really sings in the way she had on International Velvet. And I wonder if that was deliberate.
Of course, I’m judging something now that was released years ago, and worked very well for me at the time. But International Velvet sounded like a band who knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that they had made it. Perhaps, a bit like the difference between Pulp’s Different Class and This Is Hardcore, the problem with Equally Cursed And Blessed is that it sounds like a band who had made it and were wondering, “what now?”
It’s in the title, innit?
*Of course, I love Mulder and Scully now.