You knew that CS Lewis was from Northern Ireland as soon as you read the description of Narnia as, “always winter, but never Christmas”. In the same way you know this is a Therapy? album from the outset, when that unalloyed Andy Cairns east Antrim gulder delivers opener ‘They Shoot the Terrible Master’ like a smack around the chops.
It operates as an overture, with all your favourite Therapy? themes wheeled out in an economic 2 minutes and 48 seconds, laconic pessimism and dark humour duelling with that signature Steve Albini style abrasion, as well as that nasty drum sound that’s underpinned their work for 30 years. This is the way, step inside.
Brevity is a theme across the album, with the whole package coming in at less than half an hour. This is lean meat, a thoroughbred galloping through our modern hellscape. Lead single ‘Joy’ is anything but – “nothing seems to make you happy/nothing gives you joy,” and ‘Woe’ turns its central refrain into a bitter parody of your cliched rockstar “woah”. The production is tight, breathing down the back of your neck and giving you no chance of respite, the work of longtime collaborator Chris Sheldon.
‘Mongrel’ calls back to 1999’s ‘Six Mile Water’, from the sprawling double album Suicide Pact – You First. Andy’s long standing identity crisis bubbles up once again, beating his chest and declaring himself “a mongrel, no flag to hide behind”. It’s reflected in the music, veering wildly and gloriously between the Rammstein pastiche verse and a soaring chorus that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Hold Steady record.
It’s not a Therapy? album without the literary references and this time Andy takes the wrecking ball to Blake’s Jerusalem in the caustic ‘Poundland of Hope and Glory’. He’s seen the state of the nation, and he doesn’t like it very much, sneering about the “reality of drab decay”. It ties in with the desperation of ‘Two Wounded Animals’, which sees Andy singing from the point of the view of a dehumanised refugee. It could so easily descend into empty platitude, but it’s grounded in a style that is uniquely Therapy?
Even looking back now, it’s hard to credit just how big Therapy? hit it in the 1990s, fitting into the grey area between the art-school and Ozzy Osbourne, a band as comfortable in Castle Donington as on stage on Top of the Pops. It’s even more remarkable that they’re creating albums that stand up with the likes of Troublegum or Nurse. Like their old touring buddies the Manic Street Preachers, so much of their better work is buried in the later albums, nurtured away from the demands of fashion and presented to their devoted fanbase.
Hard Cold Fire is Therapy? for the times we live in, it’s the sound of angry older men looking around at the world and wondering how they’ve found ourselves in the same place 30 years on, with the same corruption at the top and everyone else at the bottom. Cairn’s worldview was never a rosy one, at odds with the optimism of the 90s, but these days we all know that things can’t only get better.
(Hard Cold Fire is released on May 5. This review is featured in Issue 10 of Dig With It, which also contains a Therapy? Q&A. See our online shop for magazine orders.)