Eight years is a long time to remain silent if you have something to say. When Damien Rice’s last album came out, Aaron Paul had just starred in Mission Impossible 3, George W. Bush was the President of the United States of America, and Microsoft had recently released the Zune. Since then, Rice completed an American tour, had a rather distressing breakup with his musical collaborator and ex-girlfriend Lisa Hannigan, occasionally played gigs in his homeland of Ireland, and stayed out of the view of almost everyone else. That silence ends now.
Rice was the head of his class in a new wave of singer-songwriters that were poised to take over years before Justin Vernon became the bearded man every Brooklynite copped a flannel after. Artists like Joshua Radin and Jose Gonzalez were compared to him as their selling point, while Rice himself was unfairly criticized as a Jeff Buckley knock-off. Not everyone was going to miss Rice. Those who missed the point in the first place may not be won over this round; Rice still sings in an Irish accent about various heartbreaks over haunting melodies, and his sincerity (or perceived lack thereof) hasn’t changed either.
Rice has always been about the inner turmoil, not the public yet personal struggles (Elliott Smith), mythologies (Bob Dylan), or the fight for the everyman (Bruce Springsteen). Be it the mistakes he’s made (“9 Crimes”), the disconnect in communication in a relationship (“Volcano”), or the bitterness following an unrequited love (“Cheers Darlin”), almost every Rice song touches on a personal romance with a story. Though his debut, O, was met with strong praise, critics panned his sophomore album, 9, as a shortcoming. In the eight years since, Rice hasn’t changed as a songwriter, but he has changed as a person. In 2006, he was a 32-year-old romantic with a sharp wit in a public relationship. In 2014, he’s a 40-year-old recluse returning to the public eye with a renewed purpose: finding a way to move on.
“My Favourite Faded Fantasy” is unlike any song Rice has offered before, and it’s the album’s boldest moment. His vocals, still sensitive, sound more like a softer Jeff Buckley stretching his voice over an orchestra’s worth of instruments than the Irish indie that was left behind. Featuring both a bass guitar and an upright bass, as well as more tried-and-true strings, electric keyboard, and those signature acoustic strums, the song starts as a dreary, slow tale. Then it grows into its loud, sweeping finish, with the lead guitar blending perfectly into the background, as Rice cries, “I’ve never loved.”
The lyrics read like a realization that being loved isn’t everything, and that giving love to someone who’s no longer there means nothing. “You could have my favorite face and favorite name/ I know someone who could play the part but it wouldn’t be the same,” he sings. “You could be my poison, my cross, my razor blade/ I could love you more than life if I wasn’t so afraid.”
The follow-up “It Takes A Lot To Know A Man” sounds more like something from 9; Rice returns to the vocal delivery he’s known for on the piano ballad. The verses predictably echo themselves (“It takes a lot to know a man” becomes “it takes a lot to know a woman”), but never feel like fill-in-the-blank lyrics. He layers his own vocals, sounding like he rewrote “Volcano” to soundtrack both an army march and a horror movie. The apex is the outro; bordering on classical, the wistful instrumental feels more ethereal yet hollow than what precedes it.
The album flows as if it were a mixtape of Rice songs to a former lover. “The Greatest Bastard” moves right into “I Don’t Want to Change You”, while the relatively upbeat “Colour Me In” melts into the bare singing of “The Box”. Even considering the weaker songs, it’s hard to skip or shuffle, as the track list is designed to push and pull you through. The only bright moods come on the row leading to the finale of the heartbreaking “Long Long Way”.
Throughout the album, what feels trite at first grows into its role. Instrumental subtleties keep appearing, often mixed quietly, revealing themselves after a fifth or sixth close listen — a clarinet here, a keyboard there. Some formulas are used repeatedly (changing the final reprise’s lyrics, adding strings at the last minute), but rather than implying a cookie-cutter songwriting style, it feels more like these songs were written and re-written until they all reached the same conclusion. Each track is tastefully memorable and enjoyable in its melancholy.
“Long Long Way” fades in with the same vocal style as “My Favourite Faded Fantasy” — that new, lighter falsetto that does not sound like Rice’s first two albums. It slowly beams with near-ambience before piano shadows the melody and more structure comes in. A clear clarinet hums along in upbeat phrases before delivering a final note like it was the last one to ever be played, the same way Rice handles everything on this album. While his style remains inconsistent and his lyrics can verge on cheesy, the music never gets stale. Each word is sung like the weight of his world depends on it.
The final lyric is jab-free, punching through to the real message: “It’s long, it’s tough when you know it’s not enough.” The last three words ripple over and over across the album’s last four minutes, broodingly revealing why he left (“it’s not enough”), why he remained quiet (“it’s not enough”), and why he returned (“it’s not enough”). Rice may be asking himself the unanswerable — is it ever enough? But for the listener, the answer is yes.
Essential Tracks: “My Favourite Faded Fantasy”, “Long Long Way”, and “The Box”