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Damien Rice delivers powerful performance

Liam Farrell | Tuesday, September 9, 2003

Very few albums exist that can completely consume you when you listen to them. So many elements have to come together in the right formula to produce a memorable sound that makes you lose yourself in the music, lyrics and production of each successive song. What is even more remarkable than making such a record is having that success on a major label debut. Damien Rice, an Irish singer songwriter who began to make critical waves this past year in Ireland, has made such a record in his astounding and haunting O, a deceptively simple and incredibly complex homemade masterpiece.

Rice possesses a voice that is entirely his own, one that whispers words of love and loss one moment and screams pain and anguish the next. His versatility as a vocalist makes what he says true. Like Chris Martin of Coldplay, or early David Gray recordings, every song seems to be written actually about someone or something rather than just an idea that came into his head one evening before a session. The musical texture behind his delicate guitar work only makes the overall effect stronger; strings, choruses and, on occasion, seemingly infinite layers of music seem to transcend the gap between musician and listener.

The songs on O reach into the deep and personal territory of love, friendship and desire, and Rice seems to come out of the experience with more questions than answers, more contradictions than certainty. On the tear inducing “Cannonball,” Rice sings “stones taught me to fly / love taught me to lie / life taught me to die / so its not hard to fall / when you float like a cannonball.” Luckily for the listener, Rice’s music floats for him.

One of the most intense elements of the album is its overall composition and production, with songs, melodies and lyrics weaving in and out of each other to the point where there are hardly any boundaries between songs. One gets the feeling that conceptually, and more importantly musically, the album can barely be analyzed or discussed in separate pieces. To say the album is a musical opus or perhaps a concept album may be too pretentious. However, there is a certain grace and harmony that bleeds through every part of this album, unlike in most disjointed pop albums. The strength of one song seems entirely dependent on the ability of the one that came before.

On an album mostly concerned with self-reflection, it is somewhat ironic that outside musicians provide some of the album’s best moments. Vocalist Lisa Hannigan’s solos on “Older Chests” and “I Remember” do for O what Natalie Merchant did for Billy Bragg and Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue, adding color and depth to an already exceptional album. The string and violin work also stands on its own, turning simple melodies into movie soundtracks.

Damien Rice’s O is an outstanding example of what an album should be. Its haunting melodies and lyrics provide a worthy companion for late night drives, reflection and heartbreaks. When the album finishes playing, the listener will be left understanding Rice’s lines in the song “Amie.” “You know when you found it / there’s something I’ve learned / ’cause you feel it when they take it away.”

Contact Liam Farrell at lfarrell@nd.edu