Even for a former heavyweight boxer, Damien Dempsey isn’t especially delicate about establishing his intentions—on his 2003 breakthrough, Seize the Day, he name-checked Shane MacGowan, Luke Kelly, Christy Moore, and Brendan Behan.
With his four previous albums and a fearsome live show, Dempsey has established himself as the greatest Irish singer of his generation, using a blend of sturdy balladry and anything from reggae to electronica to hip-hop to tell stories of contemporary Dublin life and, importantly, of Irish history. So it’s no surprise that for his fifth studio album he’s chosen to perform a selection of Irish standards.
Ever since his 2000 debut, They Don’t Teach This Shit in School, Dempsey has assumed the deep, booming roar of the Dubliners’ leader Luke Kelly, and here he borrows a couple of their musicians too: the 33-year old Dublin resident has drafted in the band’s two longest-serving members, banjo-player Barney McKenna and fiddler John Sheahan.
A number of tunes the Dubliners re-popularised in the 1960s and 70s are here too, including “The Rocky Road to Dublin”, “Schooldays Over”, and “Kelly from Killan”. Arguably the best-known of those three is the first presented and also the best. “The Rocky Road to Dublin” begins with just Dempsey’s guitar before he launches into his fiery, rich Irish brogue.
“Schooldays Over”, a working man’s ballad written by Ewan (father of Kirsty) MacColl, is fleshed out with acoustic guitars and a lilting violin to winning effect. However, Dempsey seems slightly overcome by the weight of “Kelly from Killan”. His vocals owe just a little too much to Kelly’s vocal on the seminal recording, as if Demspey couldn’t quite reconcile a smooth transition from the simple, unadorned, lightly strummed predecessor to his own more energetic version. “The Twang Man”, too, is a disappointment, with Dempsey ambitiously opting to perform it a capella. Later, however, both “The Heckler from Grouse Hall” and “Hot Asphalt” offer proof that Dempsey can deliver on the more up-tempo, high-spirited ballads.
The only other tracks likely to be familiar to those other than students of Irish music are also the two biggest successes. Anti-British war cry “The Foggy Dew” is extraordinary; Dempsey’s impassioned vocals about the 1916 Easter Rising are haunting and brutal at once. The most modern selection, the Pogues’ “A Rainy Day in Soho”, bears favourable comparison with the original. Dempsey, McKenna, and Sheahan replace the original arrangement with more traditional mandolin, harmonium, violin, bouzouki, and tin whistle, while Dempsey’s voice—for once purely tender—is much better suited to the lyrics than Shane MacGowan’s drunken bark.
As much a rite-of-passage as it is a tribute to his influences, Dempsey’s falters only occasionally on The Rocky Road, and when he does it’s only because of his enormous ambition. He has lavished upon these standards that clearly mean so much to him.
Despite the odd stutter-step, The Rocky Road is bolder and grander than the initial premise might suggest. While you could accuse Dempsey of being heavy-handed in his aspirations, by smartly intertwining his unfeigned honesty with these Irish traditionals, he’s produced an album that is political and personal, unfashionable and vital.