Review Summary: Rice's debut is marked by beautiful highs and, when he goes too far, dramatic lows.
The relationship between the enigmatic Damien Rice and the captivating Lisa Hannigan had been one of continued speculation, until they split as a result of Rice apparently telling her, effectively, to Fuck Off. Listening to O, Rice's much-acclaimed debut album, you can just about spot why the Rice-Hannigan model of emotional performance had to come to an end - it's because it was so one-dimensional. Every bloody song begins with Rice as the regretful male, moping about whatever romantic crime he has committed, and Hannigan as the estranged female, breathily voicing her own concerns about what in most cases is a fantastically awful relationship. It's sadly fitting that the real-life relationship between the two ended up self-destructing - because every relationship the two ever sung about seemed depressingly crap.
The formula that the two hit upon - consisting of highly emotional and dramatised interplay no better summed up on the touching but tiresome '9 Crimes' - had limited musical mileage. But let's not forget how great it was, for a mercifully brief time, on Rice's debut album. The title 'O' may be slightly annoying ('I know! Let's be all postmodern and name it after a letter!'), but it fits the feel of the album perfectly, whether Rice intended it or not. It is a simple and symbolic cry for help (O!), an utterance of disappointment (Oh…), and an expression of frustration and abandonment (insert sound here). There aren't many albums out there that merge emotional breakdown, existential angst, and pure personal involvement in the music to such a spellbinding and effective result as this one.
Rice is certainly a skilled songwriter with a habit for incorporating shades of folk and blues seamlessly into his simple acoustic textures. He also has a remarkable voice, capable of pure tenderness one moment and raging anger the next. Given that he was in the rather louder rock band 'Juniper' before he turned mellow, his ability to produce moments of vocal power are understandable. Rice makes sure that O reminds whoever is listening how incredibly sweet an acoustic guitar, strummed without a pick, can sound, and his fluid, simple playing is complemented by inventive yet smooth textures from the cello and other strings in the background. And when it works, it really works. The quality of the songs on the first half of the album is extremely strong, with 'Delicate', 'Volcano', 'The Blower's Daughter', and 'Cannonball' all songs of a standard you'd expect a new singer-songwriter to produce once an album, at the most. Though the last two of these four proved to be the big hits of O (and deservedly so), the real gem is 'Volcano', an uneasy, brooding blues-tinged shuffle which gets the character-based interplay between Rice and Hannigan just right. Everything is in it's right place - the cello melody, the syncopated, anxious guitar, and Rice's lyrics, which detail a little obscurely the pain of a one-sided relationship.
The problem is, when Rice overcooks it, he REALLY overcooks it. 'Older Chests', while pleasant enough, ponders the passing of time with disappointing banality. 'Some things in life may change, and some things they stay the same. Like time, there's always time, on my mind, so pass me by, I'll be fine.' Come on Damien, throw away the rhyming dictionary you got at school and give us something deeper! 'Cold Water' is a prime example of what happens when you push the 'I'm so sad and emotional, my life is awful' slider too far, and ends up being an uninspired mushy ballad posing as a genuine cry for help. And the disaster that is 'Eskimo' should never have been made. 'Is that an opera singer singing in Inuit, the language of the Eskimo people?' I hear you ask. Well, I'm afraid it is. And though including massive blocks of silence is an extravagance on any album let alone a debut, when they come you almost feel thankful that the overblown nonsense that came before it is over. On these sorts of songs, the only 'O' necessary is in the sentence 'Oh fuck off Damien.'
I'm being harsh about these last tracks, which are really only bad in comparison with the genuinely inspiring material that came before them earlier on in the album. But there's no excuse for such a drop in quality, and Rice, given his talents, should know better. He's shown he's capable of moments of real poignancy and emotion (the transition between 'The Blower's Daughter' and 'Cannonball' is a work of art). He can also write great lyrics, as the lesser known B-side 'The Professor / La Fille Danse' shows (it's not on O, sadly). O is still a great debut album by anyone's standards, but it could have been so much better if Rice had just reigned himself in in his more extravagant moments.