Religion, crises of faith and (wo)man’s fraught relationship with sin have long been prominent themes in music; from gospel and soul with their communing with him upstairs to death metal and its passion for the antichrist. In that vein comes an émigré from Brentwood, Essex and an escapee from evangelists, ‘The New Frontiers’ and boy, does it show.
Godswallop pervades Joseph Coward’s every fibre, dominating every song and illustrating someone who may never quite reconcile his deal with God. Much like his clear influence, Morrissey, Coward’s is an awkward relationship with imposed thought systems and how the skin he’s in perennially disappoints (‘Perfect Peanut Girl’s ‘embarrassment of bones’).
Pale, sallow, shy and reserved he resembles a young Steve Winwood. With arms defensively crossed whenever there is a lull in his involvement, he isn’t quite sure where to look or to place his body meekly addressing the audience with gratitude.
It’s just him and his guitarist providing sparse arrangements, all the more for Coward’s voice to scale the heights and lows. His songs are littered with arresting themes: isolation, feeling inconsequential and inadequate, excommunication and rejection, ever vivid and visceral.
The superlative ‘Thin’ with its soft guitar flourish borrowed from The Smiths’ ‘Heaven knows I’m miserable now’ and lolloping bass has sonorous vocals with confessional lyrics that stream from the tongue, plaintive and acidic. ‘I’m the water, you make me ripple, how’d you like to wrestle with a sexual cripple, I am young and thin and I am going down’ also brings to mind another Smiths song ‘Accept Yourself’ with its ‘I am sick I am dull and I am plain’ lament.
‘Idle Boy’ has a recurring riff that brings to mind Dead Kennedys’ ‘Holiday in Cambodia’ and has Coward again bemoaning how his ‘pale and idle body is betraying me’ (this time reminding of Billy Bragg’s ‘Sexuality’; a rumoured dig at Morrissey). ‘Honey, please’ has echoes 80s jingle-janglers The June Brides with its existential pleading ‘why did you do it, why did you make me, why did you do it, why am I born?’… ‘and I know God hates me and he hates you too’
In an interview with The Quietus in 2011 Coward said ‘I have no interest in trying to be nice. My one interest in life is really being honest, that’s the nature of my work as well. Absolute truth, that’s the nature of art’. On this performance and with lyrics such as ‘all human life is bile’ there’s a clear honesty and struggle for truth (with) in him.
Would have been nice to heard him with more instrumentation, but, what a voice.
For all Coward’s allusions and pretensions to Morrissey, he’s no ordinary boy.