Damien Rice: O

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I’ve never been much into the whole acoustic-rock, singer-songwriter scene. In fact, when I first heard it fifteen years ago, Damien Rice‘s debut album didn’t do that much for me. But continued exposure due to a girl I was dating at the time really changed my take on this record and it has become a bit of a melancholy favorite over the years.

The enigmatically titled O was released February 1, 2002 to little fanfare, but the Irish singer’s album stuck around and grew slowly, several of its tunes being used in movies and television, most notably the utilization of lead single “The Blower’s Daughter” in Closer. Several music publications didn’t even get around to reviewing it until the following year.

Despite being released fifteen years into the CD era, this is really an album of two sides. Not so much a concept album (though it is dedicated to the memory of a friend that he’d lost to a head injury) it’s a matter of contrasting styles in either half of the record. Side One is exactly what you’d expect if someone said “singer-songwriter,” mid-to-downtempo acoustic songs with expressive lyrics. The second side gives way to bombast and cacophony with all manner of swelling orchestral strings and even a mezzo-soprano singing on one track.

For the longest time, this album was a one-sided affair for me. That is, I found the second side far less accessible, noisier, less focused, less enjoyable. It opens with the heart-wrenching “Cheers Darlin’” in which the song’s protagonist toasts the love of his life on her wedding day – as she’s marrying another fella. As it starts out, the song sounds like it would fit on Side One, with sparse, whispered percussion behind a solo clarinet before adding a bass and Damien’s tortured vocals. By the time the song peters out among the tinkle of a lone piano in an empty reception hall, we’ve witnessed the singer’s anguished wails of “What am I, darling? What am I?” over layers of instruments and incidental voices. It’s a far cry from the acoustic strumming of the first side.

This characterizes much of Side Two – though there are moments where it’s clearly the same album, all of the tracks on the second side give way, at some point, to sounds you’d never associate with the term “singer-songwriter,” whether it’s pounding electric chords in hidden track “Prague” or the opera singer featured at the end of “Eskimo,” the second half of the album sacrifices the subtlety and nuance of side one to indulge in much more raw, primal outbursts. For a long time, this was a deterrent and I avoided the latter half of the record (or listened to it less frequently) but over the years I have really learned to love it all the way through.

So, about that classic singer-songwriter-type stuff on Side One: something about the lyrics and arrangements make this more enjoyable to me than a lot of the music that gets lumped into this category. Personally, I’d prefer acoustic rock. Either way, it doesn’t matter what it’s called, it matters how it sounds.

The album opens with its four strongest songs, the emotional center of the entire record, the heart-on-your-sleeve anthems “Delicate,” “Volcano,” “The Blower’s Daughter,” and “Cannonball.” Three of these were officially singles and “Delicate,” as the first track on the album, has the feel of a single as well after having heard it so many times. Lisa Hannigan‘s stellar vocals offset Damien Rice’s at points, her sweet Irish lilt a counterpoint to his masculinity. (Nowhere is her voice better highlighted on this album than in the hidden a cappella version of “Silent Night” tucked away at the end of Side Two.)

Damien Rice took his time with this album, ensuring that it emerged a fully realized and singular work which adhered to his vision with minimal label interference. “And so it is… just like you said it would be…” It was fairly well-received when it was released (that is, when people finally got around to noticing it had been released), and after fifteen years, I can say, for me, this record stands up well over time. I’ve been known to get a little hitch in my chest if the opening lines of “The Blower’s Daughter” catch me unawares. I’ll cop to getting downright misty trying to sing the chorus of “Cannonball.” Songs that can do that are rare – songs that can still do it after a decade and a half are rarer still.

I’ve relistened to O a handful of times in the past couple days and it made me realize how little we’ve heard from Damien Rice since. In the fifteen years since his debut, he’s released only two other full-length albums, neither of which pinged my radar. I’m curious now to determine if this was a flash-in-the-pan bit of brilliance or if digging into his later releases would be similarly rewarding. After all, it was only after myriad listens that I came to appreciate Side Two of this record.

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