CMAT review – every song is like an encore in this fizzing, sad-happy show

Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson, a country-pop artist from Ireland, composes witty and soul-stirring songs about love and other terrifying experiences. She is also a skilled guitarist, playing her white acoustic guitar with the prowess of a rockstar. Unlike traditional Nashville musicians, Thompson’s performance is not characterized by a cheerful and glittery strumming. Instead, she exudes intense energy, throwing her hair and dropping into deep lunges, as if it were her final performance, even though it’s only the first song.

The newest album from California, called Crazymad, was released last month. It is a concept album that tells the story of a woman wishing for a time machine to prevent a disastrous relationship. Its title is inspired by a lyric from a Sheena Easton song about love and domestic life. The album has been receiving high praise and is considered one of the best releases of the year, blending Adele-like heartache with wild energy and a dramatic, all-encompassing feel. In an interview, the artist stated, “I wanted to create a female version of Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell.”

CMAT exceeds expectations in her role. This evening, at a venue in Leeds University’s student union, she displays a backdrop featuring her name in bright neon lights that eventually transition into the colors of the Irish flag. Her energy towards female empowerment is relatable to all, but CMAT also embodies the current Irish culture, incorporating elements of both Sally Rooney’s sharp observations and the passion of the 2018 Irish abortion campaign. The heavy burden of rent, both financially and emotionally, is brought up multiple times. She has a nostalgic yet modern appeal.

This is a lively performance (“the CMAT panto!”) in a tightly packed venue. The centerpiece is a raised platform adorned with a large, elaborate mirror where CMAT occasionally sings to herself, pretending to hold a hairbrush and acting out her bedroom pop star fantasies. Before pursuing a solo career, she was part of a band called Bad Sea. She spent a long time trying to gain more recognition, but it wasn’t until Charli XCX urged her to “get her act together” during a writing session that CMAT started to improve. Tonight, she playfully compares herself to fellow country-pop artist Taylor Swift, calling herself the “unpolished version” or the “ITV version.”

Her terrific band abet CMAT’s acting out, clad in pyjama-like workwear and sparkly black berets, like glam cult members. Keyboard player Colm Conlan duets with her on Where Are Your Kids Tonight?, Thompson’s 80s-adjacent collaboration with John Grant, where CMAT wonders why a man is in a nightclub if he’s got kids at home. Conlan is also roped into dance routines: Strictly, if it were line-dancing week. At the end of Peter Bogdanovich, CMAT does the splits.

For Have Fun!, a standout tune whose funky, mid-70s roll recalls Elton John, she begins prone on the podium, her strong voice somehow reaching the back of the room despite the singer lying on her stomach. I Don’t Really Care For You, a self-coruscating standout from her first album, If My Wife New I’d Be Dead (2022), is elongated by false endings, a dance interlude and swooping, dramatic passages.

The audience starts off chanting “CMAT! CMAT!” but later changes to “Leeds-mat! Leeds-mat!” when Thompson shares her affection for the city and announces that her father is a fan of Leeds United. This creates a sense of rivalry between the current crowd and a previous show in Sheffield where a proposal took place. Thompson jokes, “We all love a good love story, right?” before playfully adding, “Not at a CMAT concert, apparently!”

With all the antics and playful behavior, it could be easy to overlook the underlying sadness in CMAT’s songs. Each one has a unique mix of specific details – like finding someone else’s fake eyelashes on a CD case – self-sacrifice, and regretful understanding. Most of her songs have a humorous aspect to them. While still addressing a toxic power dynamic, her album manages to be enjoyable.

During her teenage years, Thompson became associated with an older man. The book Crazymad, for Me explores the challenge of moving on from past events, especially when they continue to affect us deeply. CMAT acknowledges her tendency to hold onto memories, as evident in her entire discography.

These tracks delve into acknowledging one’s own faults, without excusing the other person involved. There are only a few instances where the artist fully embraces the sadness of her situation. In “Such a Miranda,” she starts off alone with her acoustic guitar, under dramatic lighting. “She was a good girl, so I suffer the consequences,” CMAT sings, “I have to remain broken in order to be desirable to you.”

As each song feels like a closing performance, the finale intensifies to the maximum level. “If you’re okay with it, I’d love to really emphasize this chorus,” she expresses about I Wanna Be a Cowboy, Baby!, while gracefully bending backwards on her knees with her guitar.

Remain for Something reaches a resolution, as CMAT reaches the height of her vocals and emotions, expressing a desire to despise her former partner. “But I simply cannot!” she exclaims with great intensity, before collapsing like a limp doll.