IRELAND: O - Damien Rice
Updated: Jan 20, 2021
Hugely listenable and emotionally genuine, Damien Rice offers up a satisfying set of songs about sadness and love
O, Damien Rice’s debut album from 2002, mines a very traditional idea for inspiration, that of heartbreak, sadness, melancholy. What he may lack in originality he more than makes up for in terms of genuine emotion, heart, and sincerity. This is rather poignantly earmarked by the fact that the album is dedicated to a friend of his named Mic Christopher, also a musician, who sadly died weeks before the album was released. If nothing else, even if you end up listening to this and hating it, it would be hard to deny that he really does sound like he is feeling every emotion he’s singing about. Rice isn’t borrowing a feeling here, he’s selling us one, and it’s an effective pitch. He has a soft voice and an even softer acoustic guitar sensibility, ostensibly seeking comparison with artists such as Jack Johnson, James Taylor, or James Buckley, but he’s not really like any of them. Johnson is more of a hack than Rice ever is on this album, he’s never as inventive or charmingly happy as Taylor, nor as raw and powerful as Buckley, rather he’s just a rather pleasant middle-of-the-road songsmith of songs of heartbreak. I think the worst thing you could level at it is that it’s mediocre, a charge I’d disagree with as he is so very genuine in his emotion. That said, he does have the occasional flash of brilliance.
"This sort of thing really is Damo’s bread and butter, songs about heartbreak and sadness, and to his credit he has got the musical aesthetic down to a tee."
The first of those is The Blower’s Daughter, a pleasantly melancholy song allegedly about the daughter of Rice’s clarinet teacher, and how he loves her and she doesn’t love him back. Rice hasn’t commented on the reality of the story, but it’s a persistent one, but whether it’s true or not doesn’t matter in the slightest. This sort of thing really is Damo’s bread and butter, songs about heartbreak and sadness, and to his credit he has got the musical aesthetic down to a tee. This isn’t an album that does many things, it does one thing, but it does it very well, for the most part.
Remember is also another great track that is the only one where Rice gets aggressive, and it works well, shifting from a quiet start to a louder end. Amie is also a particularly good song, seemingly about two friends recounting their past days and wondering why life hasn’t changed for them. I say ‘seemingly’ because one of the genuinely good things about this album is that lyrically there’s some depth and people can and do read a lot into them, which is a good sign in my view.
In more general terms, the album has a definite sound, that of soft vocals and gentle acoustic guitar, but he has some fun with the instrumentation too. There’s a cello riff on Volcano, piano on Cheers Darlin’ and Cold Water, and strings are present on several of the songs. He also often pairs up with a female vocalist, namely Lisa Hannigan who is a backing vocalist throughout (and takes a co-lead on the gorgeous ballad I Remember), and Doreen Curran, the mezzo-soprano on Eskimo, a song about which I have serious misgivings, but her part is by far the best aspect of the song. These slight variations in style work nicely to differentiate the tracks and make it less repetitive, but also never really breaking from that acoustic style, which means it makes sense as a piece.
However, Eskimo, the final track on the album, is a huge error of judgement on a lyrical level. On a musical level, it’s fine, bordering on good at times. But the lyrics are the most ridiculous dross I’ve ever heard, and I’ve listened to Paul McCartney’s solo work. Let’s have a closer look.
Tiredness fuels empty thoughts I find myself disposed Brightness fills empty space In search of inspiration Harder now with higher speed Washing in on top of me
So far, nothing too terrible, but nothing great either I’m sure you’d agree. What’s egregious is what follows.
So I look to my Eskimo friend I look to my Eskimo friend I look to my Eskimo friend When I'm down, down, down
Aside from possibly being offensive and culturally insensitive, it’s drivel of the highest order. What does it even mean? Why Eskimo? What does the Eskimo friend do when he looks at him? Why is he even looking at him when he’s down? Because he wants assurance? Because he wants him to do a little dance? Why? What for Damo, what for? It’s a stupid nonsense that ruins an otherwise fine song. Hell, Curran’s Polish vocals at the end is pretty good even, quite epic and dramatic, but this dross is just dumb. I’m sure there’s people that like this song, but I found it just one song too many. I’m sure many people (somehow) find it a meaningful and poignant song about friendship, but it did not work for me. However, if you do happen to love that song and are enraged at my facile take-down of it, do email in and let me know why you like it, I’m genuinely interested to know. And who knows, maybe I’ll end up agreeing.
However, despite how badly I took to Eskimo, I rather like O as a whole piece. It’s not ground-breaking, but it’s nice enough and eminently listenable. It has a tone and a style, and sticks to it in a broadly successful and listenable fashion.