From the opening notes of “Homesick” to the flourish at the end of “Tyrants”, Welsh band Catfish and the Bottlemen take you on a whirlwind of vignettes of drunken nights and flirty banter with their debut album, The Balcony. Van McCann as the singer/guitarist and lyricist tells a story in each song, leaving enough specifics to visualize a scene or person, but also making it so personal with such a limited view that the story remains completely his – ungeneralizable.
With their sound, Catfish and the Bottlemen have managed to create a classic and full-sounding rock album – clean guitar melodies, galloping drums, easygoing bass, and frustrated vocals – but with pop potential (a versatility that became readily apparent by the ease with which they were able to cover a bonafide pop single: Rita Ora’s “I Will Never Let You Down”). Even the songs that had previously been released (from Kathleen and the Other Three – EP) have been reproduced and fleshed out to have more clear impact, thanks to producer Jim Abbiss, who has worked with Arctic Monkeys and Kasabian among others.
With the lyrics as a main focal point, the listener is absorbing McCann’s life stories mainly of lady troubles, to be honest. It was a huge struggle for me listening to the album to be confronted with so many negative stereotypes of women: needy (“Pacifier”), clingy (“Sidewinder”), bipolar (“Kathleen”); however, with repeated listens over many months, I decided to step aside from my perspective to see what the album said about him rather than about the women therein. In doing so, I found a young romantic who simply wants to find their other “simpatico” half to take care of.
The Balcony begins with a bumbling drunken call in “Homesick” and an ensuing argument: “I said I’m only looking out for you/she said it’s obvious that’s a lie/…you know it’s obvious you don’t try”. “Kathleen” – their first U.S. single – paints a picture of a strained relationship with someone who’s simpatico (like-minded), but also capricious. However, the narrator is still aiming to please her erratic whims: “But let me know when I’m needed home”.
The most relatable track is “Cocoon”, a song about loving someone else no matter what the world has to say about it. McCann, in an interview with Inveterate, sets up, “I was away from home and missing the love of my life, and I just wanted to write a song about being together and fucking everybody off. So ‘Cocoon’ is about being madly in love with someone, your best friend or whoever, and people try to get inside that and fuck shit up for you”. It’s endearing and sweet, quite simply.
“Fallout” is a rare break from romance in its account of a fallout with a friend (possibly band manager). But the banter returns in “Pacifier” where a guy and girl hash it over who’s truly the needy one in the relationship, “I’m feeling like it’s put on when you say you don’t need me and you want nothing of me”, which results in an exchange of insults of course: “Oh please you’re obsessed/I said she looked overdressed/She deffo didn’t like that no”. The narrator sees himself as a sort of pacifier for the woman, linking her need with his readiness to placate her; in fact, humorously identifying himself as an object.
Though all the songs are masterfully produced, “Hourglass” is unique in that is does not sound perfectly refined; it catches Van mid-breath, preparing himself for a live take. Written from his girlfriend’s point of view, this song shows maturity in his ability to step away from his own feelings and speak from her perspective, validating her experience as well.
The album kicks right back into its swing with “Business”, another sweet track where one gains more insight into the lyricist as he offers to make the woman’s life and problems his business as well – quite a rare, unmotivated selflessness. For example, he offers to come ‘round just to check up on her: “Narcissistic but fuck it I’m coming, I need to know you’re alright”. Though the album is filled with many stereotypical females, “26” I’d like to think captures a different kind of woman: a strong, riot grrrl who is obviously unattainable to the young narrator.
“The whole album’s pretty much about girls and trying to escape a small town because up until I was 21, that’s all I had,” Van explains in an interview with Lamacq. One of my favorite songs off the album musically, “Rango”, embodies both of those themes: women and the city. The first stanza centers on home being a person rather than a place – the person in question who becomes the focal point of the song. He recognizes her impact on him, that “She always knew how to pull the strings”. “Sidewinder”, on the other hand could be about the clinger at the bar who probably also knows how to pull the strings – “When you act placid/ You know I can’t stand it” – and who you’ll end up entangled with at the end of the night.
After a romping, playful beginning, and a more nostalgic and thoughtful middle-section, The Balcony turns darker in the last few songs and ends with the most diversely composed song on the album, the wry “Tyrants”. A fighting song, vaguely political, it races towards the end yet leaves the listener unresolved.
The Balcony is conceived of moments from McCann’s young life, personal tales of relationships and memories of past conversations and women. After a full listen, it feels like the end of a long night out in the city. As I mentioned before, the honesty and detail of McCann’s lyrics do not lend the music to being particularly transparent; they almost make it less accessible. The above is mostly my interpretation of the stories from The Balcony. To hear more from Van himself about each song, check out this in-depth interview with British radio DJ, Steve Lamacq, here.
Catfish and the Bottlemen have taken over the U.K., winning the BBC Introducing Award just last month (the album was released there in September of last year). With their lively shows, good humor (see Ewan McGregor on their kick drum), and charisma, they are set to invade the U.S. Catch them this spring on their headlining tour (details here).