Born just outside of Derry and now based in Calgary, accompanied by bassist Rónán McQuillan and drummer Matt Sloan, recorded in Belfast, Carlin’s Farm is the debut album from singer-songwriter Emmét McGonagle following a couple of well-received EPs. He cites Hozier, Cohen and Phoebe Bridgers among his influences and his quietly understated vocals variously call to mind Fleet Foxes, Nick Drake and Bon Hiver filtered through his soft Irish accent.
It opens with the title track, a slow swaying, hollow percussion bittersweet reflection on memory and mortality sung from the perspective of his mother (“I was once a lonesome daughter, I go by a different name”), raised on a Tamnaherin farm as the eldest of nine children, as it muses on finding comfort in the limitations of life and death and letting go of the past (“Carlin’s Farm’s just firewood now, there’s nothing there I’d long for, anyway”) and (touching on reincarnation) moving on (“As the seasons change my body, leave me to the Tamnaherin graves/Lowly, I’ll become a lamb to live again among the fields”.
‘Field Commander Cohen’ is specifically referenced in the jauntily piano-accompanied ‘The Chelsea Hotel Is Closed Until Further Notice’, a slight Paris café accordion coloured number inspired by a self-portrait captioned “of the days when the hat doesn’t help”, and about when “you’re stuck with yourself and you come face to face with your own mental health…you try not to feel but you feel everything and your thoughts turn to grey, like a varicose vein”, and you just want it all to end and “go clear”, clearly also carrying pandemic context (“There’s a man in the clouds and he’s pointing his finger at you/But if I bought a hazmat suit would it be alright to stay with you?”).
The impetus for the album was also rooted in the pandemic when he was asked to write a song by his next door neighbour back home on Irish Green Street who was forced to close his hairdressing business for the first time in over a decade, resulting in the wistful, shufflingly strummed ‘JJ Johnston’ (the only track from the previous EPs) on which the titular barber regretfully sings “Every callous on my hands was worth the misery/Please forgive me when I say it hurts to leave/I can’t wait to take life for granted once again”, capturing a feeling with which many can identify in “Every face I’ve come to know feels like a memory”.
Again with a specific spur written in his childhood bedroom, ‘These Better Not Be The Good Old Days’ is titled after a tweet from Bridgers and, a more uptempo, slightly rockier affair with driving drums, has him contemplating the frustrations of getting your music out (“I asked the poster on my wall, but it told me to “keep calm and carry on”/The easy road was never clean, shortcuts are few and far between”), but adding, “sure, it’s good enough for me”.
Borrowing its title from the 2012 apocalyptic love story ‘Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World’, resolves from the somewhat heavy opening to a slow sway to echoing guitar notes and plodding drums as it follows the story of a fictional late-night raid on a high-rise building, involving armed police removing people from their homes and using unnecessarily using force against civilians (“Where were you when the sirens started blaring? I hit the ground, and I swear I heard you crying out”).
From fiction to fact, ‘Sticky Floor Serenade’ again borrows its title (from a 2020 single by friend and fellow musician Paddy Clarke) for a number inspired by drunken nights out with mates (“you threw up in the taxi by the traffic light/And I was in the taxi when Phoebe turned and asked me: “Will you take care of Paddy? ‘Cause I’ll not stick around”/So I took a train right to your house, and tried to keep up without passing out”), listening to The White Stripes and getting tackled by a bouncer while dancing to The Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Apache’, all surprisingly delivered in a gentle, fingerpicked, undulating manner given the events he’s singing about. All that and the received wisdom that “there’s no rest for a man with a snake-skin dress”.
Another upbeat tempo with a chugging train rhythm, ‘Hate To See It’ offers a character study of a politically out of touch elderly small town Irishman coming to the end of his days and still stuck in the troubles of 80s Northern Ireland (“And where’s the fun without the fight?”) who “blames his children on a liberal state and one too many protests on the go”. Albeit taking a different tone, taking inspiration from The Wizard Of Oz, ‘Scarecrow (I Think I’ll Miss You Most Of All)’ draws on his teenage fears of ending his days in hometown Limavady without ever having seen the world or experienced life (“I dream of the city and meeting a stranger on the train; but weathered and worn, I stand mistaken/I’m born from the soil and I’ll die the same”, leaving them “the ghost of the Yellow Brick Road/Where the lonely people go”.
Opening unaccompanied for the strummed acoustic arrives, ‘Hold Me Down’ is the sole romantic number, recalling that early awkwardness in a new relationship mingled with the desire to build upon it (“You said: ‘tell me when you need me’, well, I need you now to meet me where I lack”), moving to the lurching Eastern European musical flavours (and a hint of Cohen) of ‘Bardo’, featuring Tibetan singing bowl and named after the Tibetan purgatory in which the dead spend 49 days before being reincarnated, the lyrics capturing the protagonist wearied of their existence (“These cobblestones are making my toes bleed, and thumbing down taxis is a waste of my time”) but uncertain of where the path might take them (“I thought of home, and it felt like a bad dream/I had to leave before they buried my bones/You said a journey would be good for my soul/But where do I go now? Tell me, where do I go?”).
Carlin’s Farm ends, synths prominent, with the swayalong carousel feel and clopping percussion of ‘I Sang You A Song (Now, Please Leave Me Alone)’ as the club manager tries to manage a woman (“mutton dressed as a small town fresher”) drunkenly celebrating her birthday on cheap prosecco, dancing on the tables (“The band stopped playing ‘cause they’re worried that you’ll fall”), singing ‘Happy Birthday’ and then telling her to “Take your pity party and have it somewhere else/And I’ll pay for your taxi, piss off back to Limavady”. It then injects a note of desperate sadness as it reveals the reasons for her letting off steam as he sings “when the driver asks you where to go, you tell ‘em that you’re going back to the man whose name is on your house/He borrowed all your dreams just to throw them out/And he said that you’d be married back in 2003, but you cut ties with near everyone you know”.
A skilled songwriter with an eye for the playful masking more serious issues (a previous single was called ‘I Am A Bomb Technician (If You See Me Running Try And Keep Up)’) and an ear for an unfussy but engaging melody, Carlin’s Farm is a slow burning but impressive debut that promises a very bright future.
Artist’s website: https://www.facebook.com/emmet.mcgonagle.10
‘Carlin’s Farm’ – official video:
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