Review Summary: Ireland's premier songwriter combines folk, reggae, hip-hop and electronic styles on his best effort to date
Dubliner Damien Dempsey’s been pushing the boundaries of traditional Irish music for almost a decade now, fusing the more traditional folk styles perfected by Luke Kelly and Christy Moore with contemporary electronic and hip hop sounds, yet his latest development may be the most interesting yet: he bought an electric guitar.
If Dempsey’s debut foray into the world of the plugged-in doesn’t carry quite the same iconic weight that Bob Dylan’s watershed 1966 tour does, it does tie in nicely with the story of another noted innovator. Concerned that Dempsey’s folky, singer-songwriter style had him unjustly lumped in with the “James Blunts of this world,” lead Pogue Shane MacGowan advised him to pick up an electric guitar. It’s hard to imagine that anybody’s who’s actually seen
the six-foot-plus former boxer in the flesh would make that mistake, or indeed anybody’s who’s heard the brash North Dublin accent which is beautifully at odds with his more tuneful melodies, yet there’s a degree of sense to it too; Damien Dempsey is no ordinary songwriter, and it would be criminal for anybody to mistakenly view him as such.
The familiar themes of Dempsey’s work crop up again and again on To Hell Or Barbados
. Social justice, urban isolation, moral decay and passive nationalism are recurring themes through each of his four full-length efforts, yet within these themes To Hell Or Barbados
sees Dempsey at his most ambitious. The rousing opener ‘Maasai’ draws allusions between one of Africa’s more well-known and more interesting surviving tribes and the passionate culture of the Ancient Celts. The title track passes on a rarely-told history of Irish men and women exiled as slaves during the seventeenth-century English campaign of their island. ‘Chase The Light’ and ‘Teachers’ highlight the decline of moral education in modern society: ‘Teachers’ is an ode to Dempsey’s musical heroes- Luke Kelly, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Nina Simone all get a mention, amongs others- who took it upon themselves to instruct as well as to entertain; ‘Chase The Light’ repeats the gesture toward our elders and past generations.
Yet while Damien looks to the past for much of his inspiration, his musical style has evolved to incorporate still more modern influences. ‘The City’ is his first proper electronic jaunt, a joint venture with producer John Reynolds (Sinéad O’Connor, U2, Brian Eno) and bassist Clare King; the eight minute ode to Dublin’s history, its merits and its vices, sees him switch between rapped verse and an altar-boy chorus. He observes, “Joyce and Behan, Yeats and Kavanagh, roamed these streets like a two-legged camera.”
‘Serious’ is a borderline disturbing representation of the allure of drugs and how easy it can be to slip into addiction. Readable either as a conversation between dealer and potential victim or as the running dialogue in the mind of a disillusioned teenager, the lyric is heavy-handed, but descriptive and brutally effective.
Opening track ‘Maasai’ and the title track are the album’s most evocative pieces. The former opens with a spine-tingling twelve-second atonal wail, which begins in the traditional Irish "sean nós” style and transforms into an Eastern-sounding motif, as Damien sings: “when I die, I want to die not in a house built for the unknown, but by a Maasai.”
‘To Hell Or Barbados’ is more conservative musically, calling immediately to mind Christy Moore’s anthem for the exiles ‘City Of Chicago,’ yet features a vocal just as passionate and nuanced. His voice is more poweful, physically and emotionally, than it is technically impressive; he slips in and out of key, both accidentally and by design, yet his lung capacity alone is something to marvel at, and he can switch seamlessly between a myriad of styles of delivery in an instant. Witness the harsh-soft dynamic of ‘Kilburn Stroll’ and ‘Summer’s In My Heart,’ a pair of upbeat, folky numbers, and lead single ‘Your Pretty Face,’ an infectious mid-tempo reggae track which showcases Dempsey’s one-of-a-kind approximation of a Jamaican accent.
Damien Dempsey is no longer simply Ireland’s best-kept secret. To Hell Or Barbados
has established Damien Dempsey as Ireland’s number one songwriter, a songwriter who’s now producing his best material and only shows signs of becoming more prolific and more adventurous in future.
Stream the album: http://www.ufomusic.com/product.php?id=146