In a new series for 2019 Wales Arts Review will be asking what are the greatest albums ever produced by Welsh musical artists? A wide selection of writers will be examining their favourites, and here Kate North looks at the last studio album by the seminal Welsh band, Catatonia; Paper Scissors Stone.
Catatonia’s fourth album was also their last and to my mind their finest. Upon its release in 2001, it never received the critical acclaim of their first and enduringly popular album Way Beyond Blue nor did it garner the success of chart-topping International Velvet. However, to my mind, Paper Scissors Stone presents Catatonia at their peak. It’s a demonstration of all they learned over the years, while also being an acknowledgement that the band was coming to a close. From the bitter sweet opening of ‘Godspeed’ through to the powerfully defiant ‘Arabian Derby’, the album takes the listener on a political, personal and lyrical journey that is rooted in Wales while also being international in its outlook.
The only song released as a single from the album before the band went their separate ways was ‘Stone by Stone’. The lyrics and the video for this song suggest the dawn of a new communal era when ‘On common ground we’ll build our castle walls, we’ll build them stone by stone’, yet the closing scene of the video also asserts that the end is nigh as the band abandon their instruments. Labelled as a ‘ladette’ by the tabloids Matthews was often doing something far more interesting and powerful with her voice than the press gave her credit for, and even though this single was slated by the likes of the NME, I think it’s told the test of time with lines like ‘Couldn’t live with myself if I tried to be the bride’, still sounding as fresh today as ever.
Listening to the album now has me hankering for Catatonia’s return with songs like ‘Mother of Misogyny’ or ‘Fuel’ and the prescient lyric ‘fools get votes in a democracy’. I do wonder what the band would have done in the present climate and if Matthews and clan would like to give me a present this year it would be for them to suddenly drop a single into the world without further comment, perhaps some time around March – or preferably before.
Yet, the album is more than just political reflection. There is up-beat and poppy in ‘Immediate Circle’ and ‘Is Everybody Here on Drugs?’; as suggested by its title, a bluesy ballad in ‘Blues Song’; then the celebratory and humorous ‘Village Idiots’ with joyful lines such as ‘We are what we are, everyone one of us’.
The album cover art is made up of shots from the 1959 crime film Tiger Bay, shot largely in the Cardiff docklands. The picture on the front of the album is of the character Gillie, a tomboy, played by Hayley Mills, along with one of her street urchin pals. The imagery of this iconic movie is eternally associated with and drawn from its setting, while also making a significant contribution towards British New Wave cinema. On top of that it’s a ripping story about a murder, a feisty school girl and a tale of redemption. Beautiful, important and entertaining, I can see why Catatonia wanted it on the cover of their final album.