Not a lot of people know this, but Damien Rice used to go by the ridiculous pseudonym ‘Dodi Ma,’ a name he invented from a language he made up.
Crazy? Seriously. He probably doesn’t like people mentioning it.
, the suitably succinct follow-up to O
, demonstrates that he hasn’t really got an awful lot better at naming things, especially when you consider the rejected titles: A Hen Will Sit On An Unfertilized Egg
and You Love Her, You Even Love The Shit You Hate About Her
. Still, O
is at least an understated title, in direct contrast to the music on the record, giving little away and imposing nothing. Giving his next album the title 9
seems slightly laboured, but it’s vague enough to achieve its purpose.
Dodi was, in the late nineties, the frontman of Juniper, one of the many “next U2s” that have emerged from the Irish music scene since the ‘80s, only to burn out or fade away. Juniper were the real deal, with a sound that took in the Stone Roses and U2 but cleverly sidestepped the “arsehole singer” clause and with live shows that were as famous for who was attending as they were for the performance. Damien left Juniper shortly before recording their first album, disillusioned with pressure from the label to water down his songwriting, and split to travel Europe. Juniper left behind only a handful of recorded songs, including ‘Spaceship’ (better known as ‘Amie’), ‘Volcano’ and ‘Eskimo.’ Drummer Paul Noonan replaced Dodi as vocalist and Juniper became Bell X1; both Rice and Bell X1 recorded a number of Juniper tracks on subsequent releases (both recorded ‘Volcano’), but it was 2002’s O
that finally justified all the hype Juniper had generated.
Why is Juniper so important? Well, O
as an album, and the Damien Rice sound as a whole (‘Damien Rice’ is, in fact, a five-piece band including singer Lisa Hannigan and cellist Vyvienne Long, both solo artists in their own right), is a reaction to the failure of Juniper. Juniper were the quintessential rock band: loud, arrogant and abrasive, with the skills to back it up. O
was anything but- recorded at home, it’s instrumentally nuanced, extremely compact and reliant on the very natural sort of volume dynamic created by the voice and other acoustic instruments. At points, Rice sounds as if he’s whispering in the listener’s ear, while at other times sounds distant and lost. And it’s this element to his music that draws so many in, while repelling many more; like many great works of art, it success is based solely upon drawing extreme emotional reactions, both good and bad.
The problem, however, is how to follow it up? An album like O
is, by its nature, a once-off; to reproduce it would be to cheapen the original and to vindicate the original’s detractors. 9
definitely distinguishes itself from O
, although it’s arguable whether it’s an actual progression, but more importantly it doesn’t sound like a forced change. Certainly, many elements of O
are still present, but Damien has found new ways to express himself within the framework of his own music. O
, while beautifully written, was at times overly dependent upon the dramatic volume dynamic Damien produces so well; this element of the recording process remains, however it’s no longer a standard feature of every song.
‘Accidental Babies’ is an understated piano-and-vocal track that, in being so bare, demonstrates a marked improvement in Damien’s singing and lyrical ability. Until now Rice’s lyrics have for the most part avoided specificity. ‘Accidental Babies’ is explicitly a lament written by the “other man” in an extra-marital affair and takes the form of a series of questions to his partner: "Do you brush your teeth before you kiss? […] And does he drive you wild? Or just mildly free?”
The piano is more prominent on the record; it’s telling that the first two sounds to be heard on 9
are the piano and the voice of Lisa Hannigan (a major concession for any songwriter to make), a clear indication that he’s not a one-trick pony, and wants the listener to know it.
‘9 Crimes’ is the lead single, developing the laid-back French cabaret/music hall theme he began with ‘Cheers Darlin’’ and ‘The Professor (La Fille Danse)’ in the past, and continues with ‘The Animals Were Gone’ and ‘Sleep Don’t Weep.’ The strings are as prominent as ever; subtle and graceful alongside the piano, sharper and more immediate on the acoustic-based tracks. ‘Elephant,’ formerly known as ‘The Blower’s Daughter Part Two,’ is predictably similar to that song, melodically and instrumentally, but reveals entirely contrasting sentiments, containing the repeated line. ” 'Cause I'm lately, horny..”
It builds to an unexpectedly chaotic finale, thrilling though it is, containing multiple string parts, vocal samples and even electric guitar.
Of course Damien has expressed anger before, but never on this scale. If O
demonstrated Rice’s capacity to express pain, 9
(if only fleetingly) shows Damien actually react to this pain with anger. ‘Rootless Tree,’ which is set to become the album’s first single in the US, is an expletive-ridden rock n’ roll track, more akin to Juniper's wilder material than O
folkish charm. The kyrics are blunt and abrasive lyrics, fuelling an anthemic chorus backed by loud, crashing guitars. The chorus call of ”Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you and all that you’ve been through”
is bound to shock, but perhaps not as much as the “diary of a sex fiend” ‘Me, My Yoke & I,’ which I hope is self-explanatory. A stay-over from Damien’s Juniper days, it’s been a live favourite for years, but the vaguely psychedelic stadium rocker is too long despite an interesting, groove-based beginning.
Elsewhere, ‘Dogs’ and ‘Coconut Skins’ fit awkwardly in the middle of the album, the latter a whimsical folk song that borrows heavily from Liam Gallagher’s two-chord wonder ‘Songbird’ and, while funny and clever, performs a similar role to ‘Cheers Darlin’’ on O
, i.e. that of the momentum killer. Yet 9
never truly builds like O
does; it’s fragmented and inconsistent and, ultimately, the whole is never really equal to the sum of its parts. I’m certain that a number of these tracks will go on to be considered classics within the singer’s collection, however 9
is too frustrating at times to ever be considered on a par with its predecessor.
And to all those opposed?
“You can sit on a chimney and put some fire up your ass!”