The Western Man's Need to Cry - 'O' turns 15, and comes to vinyl

Somewhere, imbedded within the grooves, are my 20th and 21st years of life.

For people who seriously listen to music, there are, at the end of the day, two kinds of records: the ones that grow with you, and the ones you leave behind.

Whether they are things you aged out of, or just simply lost interest in—if they were important enough and representative of a time in your life, the ones that got left behind may still mean something to you, or specifically a part of you, if you were to revisit them years later.

In conjunction with the 15th anniversary of the American release of O, his arresting and ostentatious debut album, reclusive and emotional singer/songwriter Damien Rice has issued the album on vinyl for the first time—spreading the album’s ten proper tracks and two hidden/unlisted songs across three sides, and wisely attaching four well-loved b-sides onto the record’s final side.

Five years ago, in the early days of Anhedonic Headphones, when the writing wasn’t as good but I wrote more since I had more time to dedicate to this, I went back and revisited O, an album that I left behind in my early 20s, upon realizing it was (at that time) celebrating its tenth anniversary—I combed back through the album, attempted to look at it from a critical standpoint rather than a fan, dissected what it meant to me at the time, what it was like seeing Rice and his band in concert twice, and why it became a record that I left behind.

The piece became one of the earliest that I had written to gain traction online, and I was still receiving comments on it around two months ago. Some people found it (I’m still never quite certain how) and said that they had similar feelings about the album at the time it came out; some people chided me for not giving his maligned sophomore album, 9, a fairer shot; and one anonymous user asked what was so bad about being reminded of who you were a number of years ago.

In revisiting the album a decade after I first heard it, I said that it hadn’t aged poorly, but in contrast, times had not been as kind to the themes present in in O, and that, in 2013, I wasn’t the same person I was in 2003, and I could no longer identify with the record while I was revisiting it.

There’s a lot to discuss w/r/t O, 15 years after the fact—there’s the music itself, along with how it sounds on this vinyl reissue, and, maybe most important of all, what this album means now, in 2018—both to me, as well as to the world at large.

I can see now, no longer blinded by the emotional awe of my first listens when I was young, that O, at its heart, is an album about mistaking lust for love, as well as the hard to describe space in between the two; or maybe not even understanding that there is a difference between the two. It is a young man’s album—Rice wasn’t even 30 yet when he started writing and recording it. It speaks to a young man’s experiences, but once you are no longer ‘young,’ per se, is it the kind of record that still speaks to you?

O has always struck a volatile balance between tension and release—you hear it as the album progresses, and at times, you can hear that give and take happening within one song. The album’s iconic opening track, “Delicate,” begins and ends as quiet as a whisper, with Rice gently plucking the strings of his acoustic guitar, but the drama builds and the song explodes. So unassuming and even tender in the beginning, it’s when Rice hits the song’s refrain that he becomes unhinged and starts bellowing in an accusatory tone.

I stop short of saying that O is a misogynistic album—this is what happens when you start to really analyze things—however, outside of the aforementioned heartbreak and scorn, the album gets into lusty obsession, tumult and self-destruction, and the cautious hope that comes from a new relationship, and this is all within the first four songs—but these themes repeat themselves, and are carried over onto the second and into the third sides of the record.

It’s this kind of—I hesitate to say ‘toxic masculinity,’ so instead, I’ll say masculinity of the ‘temperamental’ kind, resonating throughout the record, which time has not been very kind to. Rice could, at a quick glance, be written off as a ‘sensitive guy with an acoustic guitar,’ and yes sure, some of these songs have sensitive moments, but some of them are also very, very mean spirited. Recognizing that a bulk of this record is steeped so deeply in that kind of mentality is a difficult realization to come to, and one that only comes with age. It’s not the kind of conclusion I would have arrived at when I was 20 or 21; but at 35, it is very apparent, and, becomes not so much a challenge to try and reconcile, but it is a fact that needs to be addressed.

It’s also maybe a little too easy to lose sight of those aspects with the theatricality and drama that Rice, seemingly effortlessly, creates in the music—even after 15 years, the songs on O are heart wrenching. Despite the scornful and cruel nature of “Delicate,” you can still feel that pain in the way Rice just loses it during the song’s second refrain, and there’s a similar effect on “The Blower’s Daughter”—the kind of all or nothing nature in the way he just goes for it with those big, bombastic notes.

Listening to O, from start to finish 15 years after the fact, with all its highs and even with all its faults, is like putting on your favorite shirt, taking a bite of a meal you haven’t had in years, or having a conversation with an old friend—picking right back up wherever it was you left off the last time you spoke. It is just that familiar and had that much of an impact on me when I was so formative. Despite the fact that O didn’t grow with me as I moved out of my 20s, it is still a part of me—there is a part of me still moved by it, still effected by the cathartic and visceral sense of emotion displayed.  I am already ahead of the chord progression, and I know, almost by heart, when the song’s going to get loud, or when it’s going to dip back down into a hushed whisper.

I still know nearly all the words. And I can’t help myself—I sing along.

Listening to O on vinyl doesn’t exactly unlock anything new from the experience, but it does make you appreciate the album from beginning to end. The first side is practically unfuckwithable—the sequence of “Delicate,” “Volcano,” “The Blower’s Daughter,” and “Cannonball” is almost too much, and I’d have to say that this has to be one of the best sequenced for vinyl releases I have encountered in a long time. Despite the almost flawless run on the first side, there are a few songs that I’ve always felt were slightly less successful than the others, and when I had this on CD, I’d usually skip those—the drunken heartbreak of “Cheers Darlin’” has always bothered me, and the swaying, dizzying arrangement of the track (obviously intentional) seems out of place with the rest of the album, tonally speaking; the same goes for the grandiose ‘final’ moment, “Eskimo,” an impressive and bombastic way to end the record proper, sure, but it’s not Rice’s best written song.

Easy to skip over on CD, sure, but when you’re looking at three sides of vinyl, you sit down, and allow yourself to get lost in the story that unfolds throughout.

From a musical, and production standpoint, O is still, overall, something to behold; the raw, honest way the album was made is a sound that suited Rice and his band very well, and it’s a sound he would opt not to return to on 9 (an album he, apparently didn’t intend to make, and was done so under pressure from Warner Brothers), as well as on the Rick Rubin produced surprise return in 2014, My Favorite Faded Fantasy. Listening to O for the first time was one of the first moments I can recall describing a record as having an ‘organic’ sound—sure, there are neat production tricks in the way the endless guitar tracks are layered on “Cannonball,” or the skittering instrumentation that comes in and out at the very end of “I Remember,” but the album never betrays itself and its original intentions.

It’s that raw, exuberant aesthetic that lends itself well to being pressed onto vinyl for the first time—a fact that came as a surprise at first. Though, in 2003, we were a number of years away from ‘peak vinyl,’ and the whole concept of buying vinyl was still a niche market. However, in the years that followed, I’m just amazed it hadn’t come up until now, for the 15th anniversary. O has been remastered by Kevin Gray at Cohearent Audio, and for the most part, this thing sound great—which is to be expected; there is some concern among audiophiles that there is too much ‘non-fill’ (a technical term) on this pressing, and perhaps that is what causes the minor amounts of distortion that come through during the most cacophonic moments on the record, like the climax of the first hidden track, “Prague,” or the operatic conclusion to “Eskimo.”

Though, in the album’s defense, the intentionally distorted and clipping wall of noise that crashes down in “Prague,” as well as in the second part of  “I Remember,” are just two more examples of the very real feeling this album has, and hearing all that packed into vinyl made me recall just how powerful of moments these, along with others, can be.

Somewhere, imbedded within the grooves, are my 20th and 21st years of life; the soundtrack to my last two years of college—the seasons changing in the Midwest, the time spent with friends that I haven’t seen or really spoken to in well over a decade, and all the uncertainties and anxieties that come from being young, and trying to figure things out for yourself as you cautiously step into being an adult.

Also, imbedded within the grooves, is the incredibly complex mythology surrounding O, both the one it already came with upon its original release, as well as the events that occurred in the years that followed.

The history leading up to O is relatively well documented—Rice, once the frontman for the Irish alternative rock band Juniper, quit the act in 1997, as the band were on the cusp of working with a major label. He didn’t want the label interfering with the band, and spent the next four years busking around Europe, before returning to Ireland and beginning work, in earnest, on the songs for O, which slowly started to trickle out in 2001, with the album being released abroad in 2002. It was picked up for global distribution by Vector Records, giving it a much wider audience than Rice was anticipating, and would go on eventually to be reissued by Warner Brothers.

At the time, “Damien Rice” was a band, of sorts, including Tom Osander on drums, Shane Fitzsimons on bass, Vyvienne Long on cello, and Lisa Hannigan contributing vocals—playing the foil to Rice on a number of songs. Rice and Hannigan were romantically involved, at one point, though it’s unclear when that began and when it ended, though tensions between the two continued to boil over during the seemingly never ending album cycle for O.

The songs on 9 are more accusatory in their nature, and during the tour in support of the album, Hannigan was unceremoniously dismissed from the band before going on stage in Munich; she’s enjoyed a marginally successful solo career, and Rice retreated into seclusion, playing shows in Europe, and releasing a third album, My Favorite Faded Fantasy, which was, apparently, some kind of apology to whatever happened between the two of them.

Knowing all this, there are times when it seems like O is holding the weight of the world on its shoulders—and it’s tough looking at the photo collage (originally included in the CD booklet) reprinted on one of the vinyl sleeves—Hannigan, barely in her 20s, and Rice, not even 30 yet, mugging for the camera; fragments of happier, different, and long gone times.

On my retrospective piece about O from five years ago, I received a recent comment from someone who asked me what was so bad about being reminded about who you were and who you have become.  I guess it’s kind of like going through old photos—either of your own, or in this case, looking at photos from 15 or 16 years ago, laid out on the record sleeve. It’s not bad per se to be reminded of who you were—and somewhere, imbedded within the grooves of this reissue, are my 20th and 21st years of life—and sometimes, it’s just difficult to go back.

The vinyl reissue of O is out now, via Warner Brothers.