Somewhere there’s a woman who needs never hear another Damien Rice song.
Fortunately I am not that woman and these songs are not about me, yet my own position on the songs of Damien Rice should be made clear: to my mind, Rice’s debut, O, was one of the best two or three albums of last year. Only the White Stripes’ Elephant clearly bested it, while the ordained choice of the masses, OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below most certainly did not. Somehow I feel a duty to point this out. I hear howls of protest, and yes, acknowledge that a comparison of two works that scarcely belong on the same planet as being somewhat fatuous. Still, I wonder if anyone who inked-in Outkast for “Album of the Year” happened to notice, once they’d blown through two discs of studio wizardry and smoke and mirrors, how many actual songs were on that double disc set? Three? Four? And at best, was any of it really much more than Prince Redux anyway?
O was a triumph of the songwriter’s craft, and anyone who found themselves lost in the tumult of a failing relationship last year, locked indoors with O on repeat for an endless successions of days, will likely side with me on this. O took an eternal and over-burdened theme—love gone sour—and made of it something fresh, something at once pared-down, simple, and yet emotionally complex. With this work, Rice added a page to the catalogue of romantic despair, creating a new, present-day Blue. While the pop media busily engaged itself in re-discovering a “lost classic” (doomed balladeer Nick Drake), O heralded the arrival of a more contemporary classic, one that came with little fanfare beyond word-of-mouth.
Word-of-mouth being what it is however, O took a while to get around. In fact, “The Blower’s Daughter”, one of the signature songs from the album, first hit the UK charts as early as 2001, and the full-length record was released in Britain less than a year later. By the time of its distribution in the States a further year along, even the most recent material was almost three years old. Rice has criss-crossed the country these past 12 months, performing to considerable acclaim, but curiously, any sign of new songs has failed to materialize. While no one would begin to question his work ethic and dedication to performing, doubts regarding a successful follow-up have been mounting, and they are unlikely to be quelled by the latest CD release—an overblown EP offering B-sides and rarities.
Scott Fitzgerald once suggested that writers experience one or two earth-shattering emotional events over the course of their lives, and that all of their material springs, in a fashion, from those few events. Given the personal nature of Damien Rice’s only full-length release to date, one begins to wonder whether he’s struggling for inspiration outside of his own deepest experiences. Over the space of several months, I saw him play live (superbly) twice in New York City, but I was surprised on the second occasion to witness a set almost identical to the first. The running order of songs changed, but I anticipated a new song or two somewhere along the way, or at least a work-in-progress, and neither one materialized.
The meat of this new B-sides collection was already released in Britain as the Woman Like A Man EP, and versions of these songs have also been available for some time at www.damienrice.com. “Woman Like A Man” is certainly the most complete offering, bristling with energy and emotion as it traces a familiar pattern of destruction between an emotionally reckless woman and a weak-willed man. Neither character is able to resist the primitive force that continually draws them together, connecting the addictive nature of desire—“I need a hit / Want to wait / Suck it up / Cum”—with the helpless remorse of aftermath—“How familiar / We’re bad / What we do / Stupid fools.” In common with “The Proffessor” it reveals the more ribald side of its author, which is doubtless one reason why both songs failed to make the album proper in spite of exploring the same emotional vein.
“The Proffessor” lacks the maturity of Rice’s best work (“Loving is good if your dick’s made of wood”), and “Lonelily” lacks weight for all of it’s acuity of emotion. ‘“Moody Mooday,’ as the title suggests, is purely contemplative, and then the collection is rounded out with a re-hash of three album tracks. The version of “Delicate” performed here, recorded live in Dublin, is surprisingly subdued, but more damaging is a fragment from the original demo for “Volcano”. Not only does the release of such a meager scrap suggest desperation on behalf of a record company awaiting new material, but, given that the demo is specifically dated—1997—it more disturbingly suggests that the gap between old material and new is even more prolonged than we imagined.
All of which conspires to serve doubt. Rice has charm to spare, and a talent of considerable warmth. His live performances bare all this out, and his commitment to his art is unquestioned. Yet with each passing month the prospect of a second album becomes increasingly tricky, and of course, the pantheon is littered with artists capable of only a single moving statement. There’s no dishonor in that perhaps, but one can only hope that O doesn’t end up a sole lost classic, excavated by pop archaeologists twenty years from now.