If you were to type the letters CMAT into a search engine just two short years ago, you would find information about the Common Management Admission Test, an online computer-based test conducted by the National Testing Agency, India. These days, results are dedicated to Dublin’s self-professed “Global Pop Star” Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson, the catchier acronym CMAT being her stage name. Her music has taken Ireland by storm, with her debut album, If My Wife New I’d Be Dead, entering the Irish album charts at number one. Her live shows sell out to fans who sing along to her comically inappropriate lyrics (“I just spent sevеn hours looking at old pics of me, tryna pinpoint where the b*tch began, somewhere after the Passion of Christ, and before I had an Instagram”). With such hype surrounding, what appears to be, the human equivalent to clickbait, one may ask if her success owes more to her intentionally garish promotional content, or are the tunes really that good?
Within seconds of Thompson’s opening statement on “Nashville” (“My hair is going high as heaven, so long and softer than a bed, I look and feel like Anna-Nicole, and that’s all I ever wanted,”), it’s clear you are listening to a more than competent vocalist, someone who can inject personality into her lyrics without a faltering note. The track is a perfect opener, gently introducing the singer’s idiosyncratic, self-referential world to the audience. “I’m gonna tell everybody I know that I’m moving to Nashville,” she sings in the soaring chorus, a defiant proclamation of intent. For a struggling alt-country songwriter, Nashville, whether from Dublin, Ireland, or Dublin, New Hampshire, symbolizes the last-ditch attempt to make dreams come true (see Tom Harper’s Wild Rose). Yet, as is the case for most references made across the album’s 12 tracks, a pinch of salt is required.
“I Don’t Really Care For You” is a tightly bolted together slice of country-twinged disco-pop (think ABBA playing the Grand Ole Opry). A straightforward piano refrain brings much-appreciated repetition to the song’s otherwise chaotic energy. In the middle eighth, the drums are replaced with a metronome, exposing the album’s organic roots, something that is easily forgotten amidst the lush instrumentation of strings, piano, drums, and guitar that precedes and follows. Throughout the song, Thompson drops wry observations and local cultural references (“Choking back a breezer on the patio, within earshot of that guy we knew, oh the Marian Keyes of it all,”) which could either confound or intrigue international ears, but which makes Irish fans feel she is singing for them.
On that note, it’s curious why someone from Ireland might sound like they’ve earned their accent in the deep American south. With his southern drawl, country star Keith Urban is from Australia, which is also curious. It seems the accent is part and parcel of the genre. However, the accent is remarkable in CMAT’s case because the lyrics and vocal delivery are so sincere that it seems contrived in comparison, like a thoughtful gift decorated in offensive wrapping paper. CMAT is generous in her self confessional and emotionally exposed songs, so it’s likely that the twang is a genuine step in communicating her multifaceted persona and ideas effectively, something that, if taken away, would render the project middle-of-the-road.
“Geography Teacher”, a stripped-back banjo-driven number, is one of the more restrained cuts on the album, and all the better for it. Without the crowd-pleasing tendencies on the more accessible and somewhat shallow “No More Virgos”, “Geography Teacher” feels like high art. When Thompson balances these two approaches, like on the singles “Lonely” and “I Wanna Be a Cowboy, Baby!”, she begins to fall into the same category as the commercial heavyweights of the alternative pop sphere.
The closing track, “I’d Want U”, is perhaps the most country-influenced song on the collection, lovelorn and soppy in the most endearing way. After an album’s worth of railing against modern romance (“Every bottle is a boyfriend that didn’t work out”), this song shows that perhaps Thompson’s ideas of love aren’t as throwaway as she’d have you believe.
Not even the most ardent music-snob, who CMAT’s tongue-in-cheek pageantry may well put off, can deny that this artist has a natural musicality and honesty, the two qualities needed to write great tunes. “If My Wife New I’d Be Dead” is a fully formed debut, replete with big choruses, imaginative song ideas, and enough charm to carry the album’s almost one-hour running time.