As someone from Northern Ireland working in England, I spend a lot of time on flights back and forth across the Irish Sea. And it’s hard to beat soaking up a new album while looking down on the world from a window seat and knocking back a lukewarm cappuccino. This week it was Thom Southern’s turn, as I gave his eagerly-anticipated album, Plaza, a spin on the early evening crossing from Belfast to London Gatwick. It was a quieter flight than normal as we took off from an overcast runway and I reached for my headphones, ordered a drink and pressed play.
Thom first rose to prominence nearly a decade ago as one half of sibling duo, Southern, where he – with his sister, Lucy Gaffney – released a self-titled EP of blues-tinged music that propelled the band to a record deal with London-based Marathon Artists and a series of high-profile support slots alongside the likes of Willy Mason, Pete Doherty and Bastille.
The two-piece re-emerged as MMODE in 2017, bringing out their first full-length album together. This project saw Thom’s musical output evolve, adding layers to the band’s sound and the duo taking on a much more experimental approach, incorporating elements of ambient music and psychedelia.
Plaza, however, sounds like a fresh start. And in many ways, Thom’s gone back to basics. Ten songs, each packed with a melodic punch. The pulsating drums of opener ‘Tongue Tied’ grab your attention from the outset, and Thom’s vocals ring with longing as he belts the refrain, “Darling you know, you don’t have to go”.
While the music on the record is mostly uplifting in tone, the lyrics don’t shy away from tricky subject matter. ‘She’s So Precious’, the second track, might appear at first like a compliment. It isn’t. Telling the story of someone in a hopeless relationship beginning to realise they’re being taken for granted by their other half, you can almost hear the sense of relief in Thom’s voice as he sings the line, “I’m sketching you out of my life.”
Similar emotions come to the fore in the pounding guitar rock of ‘Hypocritical Shoes’, where he swaggers to the mic to say, “Got up and left, won’t be coming back, not gonna let you stab me in the back.” There’s a gritty core to this album tucked beneath all the singalong melodies.
It’s an album packed with highlights though. ‘I Don’t Remember You’ is a real throwback, reminiscent in style of early Oasis, and if you close your eyes you can almost imagine Liam Gallagher lending his vocals to the chorus, while “I’ll Get Along Just Fine” struts along with fuzzy guitar hooks and has clear echoes of the polished pop-rock of Beck’s album, Colors.
Waves of sound in the instrumental ‘Low Tides’ wash over you before making way for the stomping bass, falsetto vocals and soaring strings of ‘What Dreams Are For’. And just when you think you’re drifting away in a hazy, atmospheric soundscape towards the end of the record, you’re hit with the incredible, gut-punch of a closing track, ‘Suzanne I’m Sorry’.
Yes, I’m a little jet-lagged and the clouds are now breaking to reveal a fairly dramatic sunset over London, but even still I’m taken aback by this final song. It’s a belter, but one with a vulnerable heart. The lyrics – while insanely catchy – weigh heavy with remorse, as Thom apologises and begs for one more chance to prove himself – “Just another lie, can you ever forgive me? / Suzanne I’m sorry, can we just start over?” It’s an anthem that seems destined for rowdy festival singalongs.
You don’t even have to wait for festival season to see him in action either, as Thom will be lining up with a whole army of Northern Irish talent including ROE, Wynona Bleach, Travi the Native, Jealous of the Birds, Tour Alaska, Ferna and Girl For Sale at Chordblossom’s 10th Anniversary Party at The Black Box on 27th May 2022. And if Plaza is a sign of things to come from Thom Southern, the sky really is the limit.