Any musician who takes his business seriously will tell you his fans are his most important asset. They may not all mean it but, hey, that's never stopped them before, has it? Some artists have, shall we say, more authoritative fans than others, and Damien Dempsey certainly fits in to this camp. Among the numbers of his growing legion of fans, Dempsey boasts Sinead O'Connor, Morrissey, Brian Eno and Bob Dylan, as well as two of his audible influences, Shane MacGowan and Christy Moore. But high-profile fans alone aren't enough anymore; in the current climate you need to double up with a bad ass
attitude, and Dubliner Damien Dempsey has that in spades. A one-time decorated underage boxer, Dempsey has the distinction of having bitten off his own tongue in a street fight, and lived to sing about it. In fact, it was while rendered speechless for two months that Dempsey decided to commit to a career in music and, half a decade or so on, it finally appears to be bearing lavish fruits for him.
The young singer-songwriter first burst on to the local scene in 1997, with the release of the cult classic single 'Dublin Town,' which was released through his music college's own label as the pick of that year's graduates, and subsequently graced the top twenty singles chart. After a sojourn in New York and the aforementioned loosening of his tongue, Dempsey re-recorded the track for his debut album, They Don't Teach This Shit In School
. However, three difficult years followed before Seize The Day
practiced exactly what it preached, seizing not only that but a major label release in the UK and America. For the purposes of the album, Dempsey recruited a group of known Irish folk instrumentalists. As a result, Seize The Day
is injected with even stronger a Gaelic flavour than its predecessor, with whistles, pipes and traditional percussion transforming very basic acoustic guitar and vocal tracks in to expansive, airy arrangements worthy of any committed folk recording artist. Also enlisted are the services of Brian Eno, who adds "atmospheric guitars" to a couple of tracks, and Sinead O'Connor, whose vocals adorn half of the album's ten tracks.
As Dublin's own working-class hero, Dempsey takes it upon himself to denounce modern Irish society's ills from a mildly socialist bent. On 'Celtic Tiger'- a popular term for the late '90s economic boom in Ireland, derived from the 'East Asian Tigers'- he draws attention to those left behind by economic advancement as the level of inequality inevitably widens, simultaneously rapping with ragged inadequacy and sly humour: "It's a tale of two cities on a shamrock shore/Please sir can I have some more/Cos if you're poor you'll be eaten for sure/And that's how I know the poor have better taste than the rich."
The ruling classes get it again in 'Industrial School,' an angry lament on Ireland's notoriously abusive Church reform school system to which the singer's uncle and grandfather fell victim: "Some were raped and some were tortured/Some beaten and abused/Frightened little children, so lonely and confused ... Sexual repression is what religion cost."
In taking a firm social stance and keeping his focus firmly local (with one exception), Dempsey is paying respect to a long list of a certain type of protest singer of which he is now a member, putting out an overwhelmingly positive message to an audience who could so easily track down darker allies. He takes his cues from Bob Marley, Shane MacGowan, Christy Moore, even poet/playwright/novelist/songwriter/drunk/terrorist/attempted murderer/drunk Brendan Behan: all men who, despite having faced worse lows than most, found it within themselves to send out a positive message to the downtrodden. The three drunken heros of yore are honoured in 'Jar Song,' a colloquialism for "alcohol," along with the father of modern folk, Luke Kelly. About MacGowan, he recalls, "I drank up with him once and woke up on the ground"
and of Kelly he remarks, "If murdering pints was a crime he'd be in Mountjoy [prison] for life."
And while the audible effect of Marley eventually lost out to the Gaelic airs of Christy Moore and company, the emphasis on language and the upbeat, highly rhythmic character have thankfully not been tossed aside just yet.
No, however righteous the artist's indignation, Seize The Day
would never stand out were it not for two defining factors. The first, I'll admit I've held back thusfar: Damien's voice. As broad as the River Liffey, to coin a regional phrase, Dempsey's accent is distinctive to his birthplace and to call it harsh would be an understatement. Additionally, he isn't blessed with a huge vocal range, but he's well able to express himself within these limitations; his melodic direction is anything but predictable, and the minor inflections he's fond of throwing in compliment his voice surprisingly well. This almost certainly stems from his early childhood and his experience with sean-nos
, literally "like old" or "old style," a very particular, highly-ornamented form of unaccompanied modal singing which Sinead O'Connor famously dragged in to the twentieth century. Without the musical backing, it can sound more middle-eastern than Irish, however Dempsey's limited vocal range and constant instrumental backing insure the style only adds extra character to an already unique arrangement.
The second defining factor is two-fold: Dempsey's expert songwriting and the vision which elevates his primitive compositions to fully-developed folk arrangements. I've already given a brief overview of his lyrics, which lose nothing for their blunt simplicity, and his unique singing style, but what about the entire package? A large team of musicians help Damien realise his ambitions- and arrangements range from the sparse, reggae beats of 'Negative Vibes' to the, and I try not to use this word lightly, epic
spoils of 'Great Gaels of Ireland,' gradually building from a bare tin-whistle/banjo accompaniment to an extended coda which combines bassy bodhran metre with wailing uillean pipes. The Aslan-like 'Marching Season Siege' lays waste to the peculiarly Northern Irish tradition of religious sect members walking down each others' roads once a year. O'Connor shares the lead on 'It's All Good'; her soft, airy high the perfect counterfoil to Damien's monotone low.
Amazingly, I've managed to cover almost everything however special place must be reserved for the beautiful ballad, 'Apple of my Eye,' which serves equally well recalling a lover as it does the singer's true muse, New York City. It's remarkable not only for being the only sub-four minute song on the album, and for being the last single to be taken from the album, but for the undeniable fact that it's really, really difficult to write a song this memorable about a city- especially one you ran away from. Furthermore, it's proof, above all, that the man who's been dubiously gifted the title of "the Irish Bob Dylan" (what a Sicilian would call "the kiss of death") can keep his feet firmly on the ground despite himself, even when he's singing about sitting in an airplane at thirty-thousand feet.