I was first exposed to the unique talents of Damien Rice in October 2002. He was supporting Kathryn Williams at London’s Old Vic and it was one of those rare occasions when within minutes of starting you knew you were listening to something special.
After charming the audience with his songs and his stories the Irishman literally had to be dragged off stage. It was a remarkable performance and it was no surprise that his debut album O would go on to have the success it did, selling over two million copies worldwide and earning Rice a Brit nomination and the prestigious Shortlist Music Prize in America.
Four years since the release of O, Rice is back with the much-anticipated follow-up, and again keeping the title short and sweet, this one’s simply called 9. The album retains all the hallmarks that made O a release to stand Rice apart from his contemporaries in the singer-songwriter world – the creativity, the passion, the raw emotion and the haunting beauty.
Once again aided by singer Lisa Hannigan, the first song on the album will also be its first single. Called 9 Crimes, it begins with tentative piano notes and the hushed tones of Hannigan before Rice joins in backed up by cello. It is devastatingly beautiful, although perhaps not the best choice as the single to launch the album.
Humble though it is, in my opinion The Animals Were Gone would have been a far better choice. A dreamy love song, it displays Rice’s knack for writing a lyric with prize cuts including “I love your depression and your double chin, I love almost everything you bring to this offering” and “Waking up without you is like drinking from an empty cup”.
Another of his knacks is for a song that builds from nothing to a crescendo of the most intense passion imaginable. One such epic is Elephant, sung straight from the heart, just as is Rootless Tree with Rice lambasting an unwanted girlfriend in the harshest terms possible.
Fortunately, for his blood pressure, he has calmed down a lot by the time Dogs begins. A pretty little tune about “the girl that does yoga” who Rice admires from afar without getting as close as he might like. Meanwhile, Coconut Skins is one to sing around the campfire with plenty of la la la’s to get people going.
The persona switches the singer is capable of are fascinating to notice. While Coconut Skins is very much upbeat vocally, Me, My Yoke And I paints Rice as a deluded maniac on the verge of either suicide or a murder spree. He says as much with the words “I’m mad like a big dog” in a mightily impressive song that jumps to the verge of heavy metal at its most intense, emphasising the quiet parts even more when they suddenly arrive.
Grey Room, coincidently, is where Rice sounds most like David Gray, an artist he is often, wrongly, compared with simply because each has an acoustic guitar. On this song however, which includes the sublime line “nothing is lost, it’s just frozen in frost”, he does verge very much into MOR territory, which is not always a bad thing of course.
Accidental Babies finds Rice switching back to a somber mode, lamenting an ex with more exquisite prose and simply backed up by a piano at funeral march pace. The sum is the most beautiful song on the album, an adjective that would also describe final track Sleep Don’t Weep nicely.
Overall, Rice has produced a release which equals and perhaps even surpasses his debut, a album that takes you through emotional highs and lows you are unlikely to hear anywhere else this winter. In a few words – it’s a bit good.