And So It Is: A look back at Damien Rice, his album O, and it's 10th anniversary
My friend Mike once told me that at some point, I said to him, “If you don’t like this Damien Rice album, I don’t know if we can be friends.” When he reminded me of this exchange we had—less than a year after I said it—I had no recollection of doing so. However, my response was, “Yeah. That sounds like something I would say.”
That is how hard-core I was about the Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice, between the years of 2003 to 2005. By 2006, after his pretty disappointing sophomore album, 9, I had pretty must lost interest, and now, seven years after that, Rice has been filed away in the “what ever happened to that dude” category of my memory.
I’m sure I would have eventually heard of Damien Rice in one way or another. The buzz surrounding him in the fall of 2003 was huge. But I initially was turned on to him in a bit of a roundabout way, involving my viewing of a Black Keys music video on MTV that contained no credits, describing the song and video to my friend Liz to see if she knew what I was talking about, her not knowing what I was talking about, but then coming back with, “Have you heard of Damien Rice?”
We went halvsies on a copy of his debut record O—and the first time I heard it, it was a paradigm shift for me. I was twenty, a junior in college, teetering on being emo, and Rice’s heart-on-sleeve, raw as fuck songwriting spoke to me.
On one of the recent occasions when I think of a song by Damien Rice, and then I wonder what he’s up to these days—I was then shook by a realization: that in June, a mere two months from now, the American release of O is going to be ten years old. A decade. An entire decade has passed. My junior year of college seems like at least three lifetimes ago at this point, and I haven’t listened to O from start to finish in years. So now, upon a somewhat momentous anniversary, before
the poor man’s Pitchfork Stereogum
beats me to it, I thought I would revisit a relatively important record from my
O is ten tracks long, but technically twelve songs total—there are two hidden tracks after the closing song, “Eskimo” finishes—the first being the unhinged, noisy “Prague,” the last being an acapella version of “Silent Night,” sung by Rice’s then band mate and chanteuse Lisa Hannigan, Thusly, the album begins and ends very unassumingly—the opening track, “Delicate,” begins with faint guitar noodling, prior to the rest of the band shuffling in behind Rice.
The songwriting structure of “Delicate” can actually serve as a bit of a precursor to the way many of the other songs, as well as the album as a whole, works. Things can start out very quietly, and then very methodically, they can almost become too much—too much emotion, too much noise—before they are brought back down again.
“Delicate” is one of the five songs that Hannigan does not sing on—as the clamor surrounding Rice and his band grew in those halcyon days of 2003, there were rumors that they had been or possibly still were romantically involved. “Delicate” is dedicated to a secret flame—“We might make out, when nobody’s there. It’s not that we’re scared. It’s just that it’s delicate,” Rice sings softly, prior to holding nothing back as the refrains continue to build—“Why’d you sing ‘Hallelujah’ if it means nothing to you? Why’d you sing with me at all?”
One of the album’s biggest breakout singles was “Volcano,” a duet of sorts between Rice and Hannigan—like many of the songs on the album, it’s about tormented love, ending with their vocals overlapping until finally all you hear is Rice saying, “You do not need me.” “Volcano” was one of the earliest songs that Rice and his band outgrew performing as it is heard on the album—live versions of the song stretched it out longer, Rice playing the acoustic guitar through distortion effects and relying on a wah pedal for a majority of the song, while the overlapping vocals at the end turned into shouts.
The second song that took on new life in a live setting is the song that begins the second half of the record—“Amie.” It’s a grandiose, beyond-epic song, based around simply strum guitar chords that become enraptured with a gorgeous string arrangement. There’s always been some debate about the lyrics to this song—if he’s singing “the story of O,” or “the story of old.” His official website claims, “old,” while many on the Internet, claim that it is a reference to the 1954 erotic novel The Story of O. This theory would also explain the title of the album.
When played live, after Rice finishes singing, he would loop himself playing the guitar. Then he would begin to fidget with other pedals on his board, eventually creating a ridiculous, throbbing wall of sound—just absolutely punishing bass. He would sustain this for awhile before, speeding up the effects and releasing them, creating the sound of a spaceship that had been idling, then took off—the spaceship referenced within the lyrics of the song. And the entire time, the guitar loop played quietly in the background, before he would fade it out.
“The Blower’s Daughter” is easily Rice’s most recognizable song—partially because of how it begins, “And so it is…” I remember that stopped me in my tracks the first time heard it. “The Blower’s Daughter” was also used heavily in the marketing for as well as in the film Closer. It’s also one of Rice’s most flat out melodramatic songs—that’s another element to the entire structure of O: each song grows progressively more dramatic until it reaches the apex within “Eskimo,” where an opera singer shows up. This incredible sense of melodrama was something that I guess I was oblivious to, or chose not to dwell on, a decade ago. But in revisiting it, it’s one of the things that stand out the most.
Something that’s always confused me, and irked me slightly, is the way the conclusion of “The Blower’s Daughter” segues awkwardly into the next song, “Cannonball,” which for a long time, was my favorite joint on the album. “Blower’s” ends with Rice’s impassioned, “I can’t take my mind off of you,” a phrase he keeps repeating until he’s just mumbling “my mind,” and then finally, “Til I find somebody new.” The end of the track and the beginning of the next are cut on the “new.” Within the context of this album, from start to finish, I suppose that it’s fine. It’s just always seemed a little off to me. But taking the songs out of context—say it’s 2004 and you are trying to impress a girl and you are making her a mix c.d. with some Damien Rice on it. And “The Blower’s Daughter,” just ends abruptly with “Til I find somebody.”
“Cannonball,” lyrically is SOOO melodramatic—the refrain is full of opposites: stones taught him to fly, love taught him to lie, life taught him to die, courage taught him to be shy. That’s a cringe worthy line if I’ve ever heard one. Musically “Cannonball” seems simple on the surface, but I’ve always tried to figure out how many separate guitar tracks there are—it seems like there are at least four—one of them heavily panned back and forth between channels. As melodramatic as the lyrics are upon revisiting them, and looking at this record objectively, I still found myself hypnotized by the rhythm of the song, and I still found that I remembered all the words.
O is structured to be top heavy with “hits,” or at least what you could consider to be more listener friendly songs. After “Cannonball,” you get into “Older Chests”— one of the saddest—like genuinely sad—songs on O. Not sad as in like, “Oh it’s so beautiful and he’s singing his heart out and this is really emotional,” but like this song is for real really heartbreaking.
After the swelling strings of “Amie,” come an abrupt and intentionally awkward ending, O begins its final descent. “Cheers Darlin’” has always been a bit of a vibe-killer for me. It slowly plods along, with glasses clinking and clarinets—it’s a bitter song, aimed at a girl Rice was flirting with in a pub, who then later left with her boyfriend. He was drunk when he wrote it, as the story goes, the very night of the incident. “Cold Water” is another sad song, but unlike it’s counterpart, “Older Chests,” it doesn’t work as well—the melodrama overshadows the rest of the song, even though the piano notes it is based around are quite beautiful, and the vocal interplay between Rice and Lisa Hannigan add an extra layer to the song.
As the album begins to wind down, “I Remember” is a bit of a surprising song—mostly because it works in two parts. The first is sung only by Hannigan, with Rice accompanying her on guitar—it’s all very unassuming. After a certain point, midway through, Hannigan’s part is finished, and suddenly the song takes a very drastic, and noisy turn. It’s a bit of a jolt—especially if you were not prepared for it. But it’s one of the few times on O that Rice really lets loose—something that he tended to do in concert when touring to promote the album.
In preparation for revisiting this album, and writing about it, I did some Internetting around to figure out what Damien Rice is up to as of late. He plays a lot of European music festivals, and there were rumblings on his fan forum that he’s recording a new album. For some reason, after his 2006 follow up, 9, I expected him just to fade away. Rice always seemed uneasy in the spotlight. Prior to being a solo artist, he fronted an Irish rock group named Juniper. After getting a major label deal, he decided that he didn’t want to compromise his music and abruptly left the band—the band that would eventually go on to be called Bell X1. Even as O’s popularity rose, the promotion of his music seemed like a chore to him. When I considered myself a “fan” of Rice, I saw him twice in concert. The first time was in support of O, at the Barrymore Theatre in Madison. His set was disorganized, and along with playing around with the arrangement and tone of the hits people show up to hear—it seemed like he was just bored playing the same songs every night. Many songs he sang, unnecessarily, through a microphone run through distortion, casting an angry, somewhat confrontational shadow on everything.
The second time was shortly after 9 was released in 2006, at a sold out show at the 2500 seat Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. Within two years, his live presence had become much more organized—a big rock machine, if I remember, with lots of lighting effects throughout. This was also one of the last shows with Lisa Hannigan, who was either dismissed, or left on her own accord.
For me, 9 was a disappointing follow up. The overall production of the album was much more polished. There was also an overly sexual tone to the record—awkward when referenced, and uncomfortable to hear. I mean, there was an entire song—a very loud song—dedicated to his dick. And I think it was after I couldn’t make myself really fall in love with 9, that’s when my interest in Rice’s music started to wane.
In recently years, back when I was doing my daily radio program, I occasionally threw some Damien Rice into my set—always on St. Patrick’s Day (he is Irish, after all.) More often than not, it was a song Rice record with Lisa Hannigan for Herbie Hancock’s 2005 album Possibilities—a concept very similar to what Carlos Santana had perfected years before. Rice, Hannigan, and Hancock gave a very somber rendition of the standard “Don’t Explain.”
O hasn’t aged poorly, but its themes haven’t aged well. Listening to it now was like opening a time capsule. There are many memories that I closely associate with this album—almost too many. Hearing those first few guitar plucks of “Delicate” sent me back in time like I was in a Delorean with Michael J. Fox. Like many albums that you latch on to at one time in your life, they don’t grow with you. You outgrow them. I’m not the same person I was a decade ago, so even as a flood of memories are associated with O, I found that this isn’t the kind of record I can identify with now.
So Damien Rice, if you have a Google alert set up for yourself any time the Internet mentions you, and you read this, happy 10th anniversary of the U.S. release of your album. You took this country by storm. You soundtracked many a dramatic moment on “Grey’s Anatomy," and to an extent, you have faded into early 2000’s musical obscurity.