Tuesday 12 December 2017

Are Kodaline the latest victims of Irish self-loathing, where home-grown rock heroes are reviled?

Ed Power reviews Irish rockers Kodaline's new album Coming Up For Air and asks why they so divide opinion

Irish rockers Kodaline
Ed Power

Ed Power

Has a band ever divided opinion as sharply as Kodaline? They are the ultimate love/hate proposition. Indeed, many have found it possible to cultivate a hearty loathing of the Dublin chart-toppers without having ever listened to a note of their music.

For some of us, their pouts, their shimmering sad-man eyes, the soggier-than-a-wet-marshmallow song titles are damning enough on their own.

With their second album, Coming Up For Air, on course to top the Irish charts and an acoustic show in Whelan's tomorrow setting social media ablaze, the Swords quartet could doubtless care less about their detractors.

Nonetheless, it feels telling that here is yet another Irish group that has split the public down the middle, their tens of thousands of devotees going weak-kneed over each exquisitely cooed lyric, everyone else scratching their heads in befuddlement.

Kodaline are huge – for those old enough to remember when rock music meant something (seriously, it used to) that might be considered deeply troubling.

Critics, especially, have had a hard time coming around. Kodaline's career was almost holed beneath the waterline from the off when a reviewer from the influential Q magazine in Britain targeted the ensemble with a journalistic howitzer. In what read like a merry screed, the writer dismissed debut LP In A Perfect World as 'entirely meritless'. Just last month, the Guardian newspaper likewise skewered our heroes, this time for coming over 'like the Script with the personality taken out'.

"The lyrics sound like a whingey fight you’d hear a needy drunk couple having on the night bus, going round and round with no clear conclusion," continued the write-up. "Crushingly boring from three seconds in and instantly forgettable, it’s a waste of everyone’s time."

WATCH: Kodaline release first single from new album 

Far from taking such admonishments on board, on the new album Kodaline have reasserted their commitment to big, booming choruses and soppy word-play. Recorded in Los Angeles with Snow Patrol's regular wing-man Jacknife Lee, Coming Up For Air is a confident reprisal of the group's musical first principles, with its sweeping dynamics, cloud-bursting guitars and dewy piano lines.

Fans will lap it up. Chugging lead single Honest bridges the gulf between U2 and The Script – it is very, very emotive, yet with a glimmering pop sheen. And those with a soft-spot for frontman Steve Garrigan's luxuriant falsetto will be impressed with its prominence on the twinkling Unclear and The One.

Amid the strategically deployed bombast are also hints of a more interesting band itching to break free. The shuffling grooves and strings of Caught In The Middle serve as an unexpectedly edgy backdrop for Garrigan's mewling and Play The Game bursts into life with a fusillade of grinding synths.  It's a delight – a glimpse of the genuinely innovative prospect Kodaline might one day become if they can leave the self-seriousness at the studio door.

To date, reviews of the new record have tended to hedge their bets - as if music journos can't quite bring themselves to acknowledge Kodaline's progression as artists. The band may be inclined to shrug off such slings and arrows as the work of frustrated hacks who will never know what it is be globally adored.

And yet, there are reasons for suspecting the cruel write-ups DO hurt. Speaking to the Irish Independent in 2013, just as they were breaking through internationally,  Garrigan sounded rather po-faced about the deluge of negativity.

'We don't read the [critics]," he told me in a tone indicating he deemed the subject closed. "You are never going to impress everyone. There will always be people who don't like what you do. For us, the most important thing is that people want to come to the shows. That is what matters to us."

WATCH: Kodaline's brilliant cover of Ed Sheeran's 'Sing' for BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge 

He also took issue with the suggestion, as put to him by the interviewer, that Kodaline might be perceived as a boy-band with guitars.

"People think only girls like our band," he said. "Our audiences ranges across all types. We're touring America at the moment and there are a few people who have come to all our gigs. We get older people too, every sort. We keep an eye on who is looking at our Facebook. It's not just [girls]. They are from all walks of life."

As they reel from the ongoing flurry of journalistic blows it might comfort Kodaline to know they are in good company. For reasons that may have something to do with the Irish tendency towards self-loathing, home-grown rock heroes are frequently reviled in the old country.

Bono bashing, after all, has been a national pastime since circa 1982. Snow Patrol are so widely looked down upon it comes as a minor surprise that they are able to attract tens of thousands to their shows. The Script are, if we are be kind, not taken seriously as a musical force. Even arguably more credible acts such as The Cranberries – loathed in Ireland within five minute of having a hit in Britain – and Sinead O'Connor are the subject of snide disdain.

Irish self-hate aside, this is probably a consequence of the distorting effect of the spotlight. When someone becomes famous, their flaws and foibles are blown up to super-sized proportions. In regular life, Kodaline are no doubt entirely decent chaps. A bit TOO fond of designer cardigans and suspiciously perfect of stubble maybe – yet otherwise, you suspect, perfectly down to earth.

But as arena stars they set our teeth on edge. With their pouts and their furrowed brows, they pull off the brooding romantic dude thing so effortlessly that it feels contrived – a schtick even (no matter that it unquestionably comes from a genuine place). Among critics, Kodaline's downfall is that they are simply too good at what they do. Ultimately, of course, that's not their problem – it is ours.

Coming Up For Air is released today.

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