A funny thing happened on the way to listening to Melbourne artist Riley Catherall’s new album, When I Go, multiple times: it embedded itself in my consciousness in such a way that I’d be walking down a street and, boom, a few bars of a bridge from one song would pop into my head, and on another day and another street, or a different place and moment, it would be a different few bars, sometimes a verse, or a whole song. It wasn’t a matter of a haunting so much as a hard drive: those songs were now taking up permanent space on mine and were programmed to play at random times. And that’s the point at which it became clear that Catherall has quite a skill for writing tunes (although there has been plenty of evidence of that over his previous single and EP releases).
Catherall is a musician with a brace of instruments at his disposal, including his voice, and that deep, almost saturated knowledge of music has no doubt contributed to – if not completely shaped – his ability to write songs that will not leave you alone. But it’s his sensibility as an artist that has likely ensured that these are songs you will not at all mind taking up residence in your life. These are not earworms that will make you regret you ever heard them; they are songs that you’ll be very happy to keep around. And just as there are many layers within each of them, musically and lyrically, they build up their presence in layers.
There are themes within this album: isolation, self-doubt, self-questioning, mistakes made and attempts to fix them. It’s a collection of songs that indicate that Catherall is still trying to make sense of himself and his place in the world, which is actually a sensible pursuit for a thinking person. The heart of this quest – and also its destination – can be found in the second-last song, the glorious, allegorical ‘No One’s Saint’. It’s the declarations in this song – I am not your saviour, This is not my kingdom – that reveal the parameters of Catherall’s project: he is, simply, a human, doing what he should in trying to figure out how to be. He’s not a saint, or a monarch, and that is a not a paradigm anyone should try to embody. The answer to those questions, the solution to the self-doubt, is in accepting that being nothing more grandiose than a human is just fine. The clue that this is his answer comes in the next song, the last, ‘When I Go’, when he sings that he won’t be back this time. That is, perhaps, because that previous version of himself – the one who was trying to be a saint or a monarch – doesn’t exist any more. It feels like a relief, for him, and for us. It’s all right to just be here and accept this moment, then the next. And what is a purpose of art if not to reassure us that all is well at times when we feel like it’s not?
So you could come for the rich musicality of this album, for Catherall’s smooth, warm voice, or for the stories in the songs, and leave with some earworms, but if you stay a bit longer, and let those songs really take up residence within you, perhaps you too will feel like you can be still, and listen, and believe that everything is going to be okay for a little while.
When I Go is out now.