In the 2010 documentary film Ladies And Gentlemen, Gavin Friday, the biggest rock star in the world, one Bono Vox, recalls how his boyhood friends Friday and Guggi Rowan were forced to deflate his figuratively ballooning head as fame first began to exert its powerful hold on him. We all know their attempts at ego deflation were only temporary–but all for the best, really, as no one actually pines for a humble Bono.
At the time, Friday and Rowan were the cross-dressing, banshee-like co-instigators of post-punk act the Virgin Prunes, whose unsettling but exhilarating paeans to depravity, such as “Baby Turns Blue” and “Pagan Love Song,” were the antithesis of U2’s earnest, ideological anthems. Rowan has since cultivated a career as an avant-garde artist, known simply as Guggi. But Friday stuck with music, and much like Tom Waits, he’s made a go of being one of the most famous people still able to claim “cult” status. His absolutely stunning new album is titled catholic, with a small c — an acknowledgment that while he isn’t a prisoner of faith, he’s always aware, as an Irishman, of its hovering spectral presence.
His last solo album, Shag Tobacco, was released all the way back in 1995. He’s since done everything from reinterpreting Shakespeare’s sonnets with the Royal Shakespeare Company, to composing incidental music for 50 Cent’s Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, to contributing songs to Naomi Campbell’s Babywoman album. Friday explains, “I started working on soundtracks, and other projects just came through the door, even theater work. I had a fascinating time, musically.”
Then in 2009, Friday’s very famous friends threw him an extravagant birthday bash at Carnegie Hall. U2, Courtney Love, Rufus & Martha Wainwright, Lou Reed, Antony, and Scarlett Johansson all shared the stage with him. Playing his old songs had the unexpected effect of reigniting his desire to write for himself again. Enlisting producer Ken Thomas (Cocteau Twins, Moby, Bowie), Friday refused all offers of star collaborations, and as a result, catholic is a deeply personal work. It would not be an exaggeration to describe it as a collection of hymns, of a sort–especially as his haunted baritone has never sounded so otherworldly.
“I didn’t set out to make an album called catholic,” he insists. “But there’s a spirituality about it; though it’s not religious, it’s about the personal. And I definitely am a product of this Catholic country. If it wasn’t for that repression, there wouldn’t have even been the Virgin Prunes. So I thought, I’m going to claim that word back and make it my own.” Indeed, the lyrics are profoundly confessional. And there’s an almost celestial, gossamer quality to many of the songs, especially the gorgeous “The Only One” and “The Sun And The Moon And The Stars.” Also particularly striking is “A Song That Hurts,” which finds him sounding something like a Gothic Curtis Mayfield. Not unlike Sigur Ros (who Thomas has also worked with), Friday seems to have been less concerned with recognizable structures than with creating lavish atmospheres out of weighty emotions. “These days,” he reckons, “with everything being so programmed and calculated, you have to, in a way, trick yourself into getting lost in the music. I wanted a very spontaneous record.”
Hardly a surprise, the act of unbridled catharsis that was the making of catholic has reinvigorated his artistic urgency. So it’s a safe guess that we won’t have to wait another sixteen years for the next Gavin Friday record. “I did this TV show recently,” he recalls excitedly, “where they showed a clip of me as a nineteen-year-old in the Virgin Prunes…and the rage was phenomenal! Back then everyone was always saying, You can’t do this, you can’t do that. And I’ve found that people have been telling me that a lot again lately. So I feel like I’m nineteen again!”