At the beginning of the year the unveiling of the title song and its arresting video marked the annunciation of Song Of Co-Aklan. With its implication of Celtic mythology, this alter ego of Cathal Coughlan seemed potentially imbued with special powers, and why not, given the man returns after a turbulent decade providing plenty of scope for trenchant observation and the conjuration of arresting, absurdist visions; a skill in which he’s singularly adept.

Following 2010’s Rancho Tetrahedron there had been collaborations and a Microdisney reunion, and it appears the latter was the spur towards something new under his own name. An exciting prospect signalled by ‘Song Of Co-Aklan’, and confirmed as ‘Owl In The Parlour’ and ‘The Knockout Artist’ were also loosed in the run-up to the album’s release.

It’s often difficult to gain initial purchase on the characters populating his world; the songs packed with fleeting, rich correspondence, and barely discernible echoes; it’s as well to accept early that insight may only arrive incrementally. Fortunately there’s so much immediate variety to revel in; both in his voice – extraordinarily mobile across an extensive range of mood and emotion – and the musical arrangements, of which exactly the same can be said.

This eminently listenable record; brimful of examples of what he’s called the ‘art song’; is diversely theatrical with elements of Brel and Brecht, by way of Scott Walker, Alex Harvey, and Mike Westbrook. He certainly deserves the designation of artificer for the manner in which he’s gathered and marshalled this ensemble of clever musicians; his Grand Necropolitan Quartet, members of Microdisney, plus among others Luke Haines and Rhodri Marsden.

Song Of Co-Aklan’ is tour de force and a flourish, insistently driven with percussion and synth, to really kick-start matters; Coughlan firing out cut-up lyrics with enough internal rhymes and logic to indicate the mind behind. It’s full of 2021 mixed-up confusion; ‘raise your hands if you don’t know what this means’ and ‘feeling affronted, blame the unwanted’; while invocations of Robert Nairac and Lockerbie summon the restless dead of previous times.

The angry, rough piano, cello, and voice of ‘Passed-Out Dog’, is quite unbending before its unexpected change of mood, and the seepage of other voices and sounds. Something similar but more extreme occurs in ‘My Child Is Alive!’, and then thematically in ‘Owl In The Parlour’ where the protagonist prowls the dark web about some unspecified dirty business involving coups, crytocurrencies, and perhaps even Fred West.

The Lobster’s Dream’ invokes more foul deeds, possibly instigated by the jet-bound crustacean, in an unstable lounge setting with a touch of Leonard Cohen phrasing and a memorable line about strafing ‘each cafe on Petain Boulevard’. ‘Crow Mother’ and ‘The Copper Beech’ both present as spooky, rural gothic while ‘The Knockout Artist’ may be a wild commentary on twenty-first century celebrity; ‘please smash your own jaw to ironic applause’ applies to so many.

In contrast to what’s gone before the concluding pair of songs; ‘Falling Out North St’ and ‘Unrealtime’; both carry a sense of gentle, near-nostalgic drift; and as Sean O’Hagan and Eileen Gogan join him in a finale turning to dissolve, passion appears for the instant spent. A brief moment only, given there’s a persistent itch to Song Of Co-Aklan defying balm or scratch, and it’ll have you quickly diving back into what is, thus far, the year’s most compelling, puzzling, yet rewarding release.

Available now from Dimple Discs