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REVIEW: Damien Rice: O
8.24.2002 by Sean

Damien Rice: O [self-released (buy), 2002] (mp3s)

Three words? at first sight

The lights lower, the crowd quiets. There is a low glimmer below the purple velvet curtain. And the overture begins.

It begins with a soft murmur of acoustic guitar. Then the morning patter of drums. And a voice - assured, thoughtful, not quite wise, but on its way. "So why'd you feel my sorrows / with the words you borrowed / from the only place you've known. / And why'd you sing hallelujah / if it means nothing to ya / why'd you sing / with / me / at / all?" Simple words, yes, and sad ones. They rise under a swell of strings - cellos that are not cinematic, nor pastoral, but rather the sound of waves at night, or, perhaps, the creak of a wardrobe as it opens, of an oaken door as it falls closed for the last time.

This singer - whoever he is - sings directly to this one who has left him; he sings without malice, without spite. It's a missive, a love-letter. He pushes neither too hard nor too little. He says what he needs to say. He says no more.

The sound of guitar, on a porch at night. And the overture ends.

Damien Rice's debut album is a work of inspiring subtlety and craft, a
record that speaks not only of Rice, but of the human blood that courses through his veins, the human sounds that rise in his throat, the human heartbeats that gulp down human feelings. It is almost Shakespearean in the clarity of its voice, in the resonance that it evokes in the listener. These songs are not the heavy work of Songs:Ohia or Will Oldham - they do not sketch sadness and pain in thick, black watercolours. No - O is a more nuanced work, with different goals, different tools. It is twelve songs - twelve faces - each of which distinct, but each familiar. This music does not compel the listener to feel what Rice or Lisa Hannigan feel - instead, it has us stare into their eyes, stare deep, and understand that feeling, to remember when we felt it too.

"Volcano" follows the above-described opener, "Delicate". Atop plucky bass and spare, crisp percussion, Rice sings of illusions, lies, deception. A glow rises on stage and again, there's cello - but everywhere on O strings are treated with restraint. Vyvienne Long's melodic sweeps and buoyant pizzicato enrich Rice's songs without overpowering them - there's a marked difference between this and the usual knock-out-heavy arrangements on Belle & Sebastian records.

Lisa Hannigan joins Rice part-way through "Volcano", and she sings one verse alone. Hannigan's voice is extraordinary - sad but firm, iron wrapped in velvet. When she sings, I cannot tear my ears away - the seriousness, the gravitas in her words. She is Cordelia, witnessing her father turn his back.

"The Blower's Daughter" follows. Again, Rice with his guitar and strings - but this time the cello-strokes are low, long and mournful, like limestone steps that Rice slowly climbs. "I can't take my eyes off you." After the first chorus, another, lighter guitar appears from around the corner, glinting of sunlight much like Jonny Buckland's work in Coldplay. Hannigan's voice flutters to the surface like a ghost, like a memory, murmuring into Rice's ear as he looks out onto the city. "I can't take my mind off of you," he says, over and over, as the lights fall.

Act Two begins with "Cannonball", a thicker guitar sound blossoming under mellower lyrics: "Stones taught me to fly / love taught me to lie." Rice communicates his poetry fragments well, neither self-conscious nor Ryan Adams-arrogant, and consequently it consistently works. Rice's work doesn't really sound like anyone else. Where Damien Jurado sings lonely songs for places with bare skies and empty trees, Damien Rice plays music for cities stuffed with buildings and life, green leaves and empty benches, and where the loneliness is no less potent.

"Older Chests" slows, scratchy guitar rustling over the sounds of a park. It's heartbreaking without being gratuitous, "So pass me by / I'll be fine", and when Rice is joined again by voice and cello, in a flourish of beauty, the pain feels it might shatter like glass. "Amie" is for when Rice is whirling atop a hill, like The Sound of Music, demanding that She pay attention, that She listen. He smiles, he spreads his arms wide, he celebrates.

Later, this bliss is swept away by black matte. The clink of glasses, the fuzzy, drunken mutterings of "Cheers Darlin'". When Hayden meets Tom Waits, perhaps, until the shivering slam of strings appears, sending glasses flying off of tables, sending boots stamping over floorboards, sending Rice running into the blizzard beyond the bar. And then "Cold Water" washes over him like an ice bath, making everything still and quiet, tender... Hanigan joins him, like the softest of lovers, her sad voice making the words all the more poignant... "I can't let go of your hand..."

But the tension is growing, the climax approaches... On "I Remember", Hannigan sings of loss, of betrayal, but her anger is muted, muffled, and her song fades to an end... Immediately after, Rice takes up a different melody - still the same track - and lets loose with a barrage of plaintive calls, snarls, roars, and a messy, shrieking growth of strings like the howling rabbithole from Waits' Alice, the shrieks of Rachel's gone wrong. In this hornet's nest of noise, this shuddering cloud, "Eskimo" appears, calm and quiet, entering slow. It's a smiling troubadour, scars healed, a sing-song edge in his voice. "So I look to my Eskimo friend / when I'm down." The track is altogether an enigma, its allusions beyond my talents, and this is not helped when an opera singer bursts into a joyous, soul-moving crescendo, her Finnish (?!) aria perhaps the best use of an operatic voice in any pop song, ever. The confusion - as you may have intuited - is altogether wonderful, lifting the listener into the air like a camera mounted on a crane, the empty courtyard growing smaller, Rice in its center, arms raised, until rainbow clouds explode in a wash of streamers, a torrent of cool rain, a shining, glittering, glimmering bath.

On the first of the two hidden tracks, Damien Rice again shows his anger, loosing it as sudden as fire. It creaks and groans like some clockwork monster, a creature out of Elbow and Radiohead dreams. Following that comes the heartache of "Silent Night", but I will leave that treasure for those who seek it out.

Damien Rice's talent is singular and tremendous, and O is absolutely extraordinary. It sits down beside you, stares you in the face, and lets you know it, simply know it, with words like gifts and music like first love. The packaging and artwork are among the most beautiful I've ever seen - like a bound book, with paintings and poetry. But more than that, these twelve songs are pure magic, joys to hear, and O is one of the year's very best.

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