It’s no surprise that “Life Stories” is autobiographical; the title is a bit of a giveaway. Mary Coughlan’s renowned for her unflinching honesty and this album has its painfully candid moments, but there’s a healthy seasoning of musical and lyrical humour for contrast. I’m using autobiographical a bit loosely here; there are a few interpretations in addition to Mary’s co-writes, but they’re all carefully chosen to fit in with the overall themes of the album.

A perfect example is the album’s opener “Family Life” which touches on dysfunctional families and religion. It’s obvious from the first few bars that it’s a Blue Nile (Paul Buchanan) song but Mary’s incredible voice immediately marks it as her own. And that voice; the obvious and over-used comparison is Billie Holiday, but it’s still valid. The richness and resonance of Mary’s voice and the exquisite phrasing are the magic ingredients that bring the songs to life. That and the quality of the musicians and arrangements. The band moves seamlessly between the slow ballad stylings of “Elbow Deep” and “No Jericho” the swing of “High Heel Boots” and “Forward Bound”, and the sixties chanteuse pop of “Two Breaking Into One” as the album ebbs and flows on its journey. The only aim of the band is to serve the song and to give Mary the best setting for her potent vocal delivery.

Although Mary has the reputation of being harrowingly honest, there’s also a lot of humour running through the album. “High Heel Shoes” hints at “These Boots Were Made for Walking” and the late Kirsty MacColl’s fabulous “In These Shoes”, while George Gershwin’s “Do It Again” is given a cheeky intro with the very short Cole Porter pastiche “Little Dance”. And the album’s closing song “Twelve Steps Forward, Ten Steps Back” takes a humorous swipe at the addiction recovery process. I want to read a positive approach into it because there’s a gain of two steps. The slow ballad “Safe and Sound” also shines a positive light contrasting Mary’s troubled past with the love she feels for her own children and grand-children.

Two of the darker songs on the are interpretations of songs by other Irish writers. “Elbow Deep” is a Karrie O’Sullivan song about the young Irish women abandoned by their families after indiscretions and “No Jericho” is a Susan McKeown song, stripped back to a slow piano and upright bass arrangement that leaves plenty of space for an intimate vocal interpretation.

“Life Stories” is one of the best albums I’ve heard this year. It’s a journey from pessimism to optimism with occasional flashbacks and doesn’t ignore the fact that even the most horrific journeys can have their humorous twists and turns. It’s a fine set of musicians creating settings that make these twelve diamonds sparkle.

“Life Stories” is released in the UK on Friday September 4th on Hail Mary Records (HM002CD).