O was released some time ago overseas, to no small amount of critical and public acclaim. Nearly a year later, it finally makes its way to American shores—and it’s well worth the wait, for within the singer/songwriter mold, Damien Rice shows significant talent. The comparisons to Jeff Buckley are readily available and somewhat fitting, but it’s immediately unsatisfying to pigeonhole his style in any way. Rice possesses an operatic sensibility that often exceeds even Buckley’s famed sense of dramatics, using his voice as a surprisingly expressive and dramatic instrument; in fact, his entire style, from his sense of arrangements to his use of background vocals, screams “Drama!”
Don’t let that scare you away, though. The irony of Rice’s approach is that he rarely overwhelms you. Surprisingly, much of O threatens to slip by on a casual listen. On a purely surface level, his sound seems to be all about his voice, which often reaches a fragile, breathy register, as if his body is so exhausted with emotion that the lyrics must leak out. If it were just him and an acoustic guitar, though, O would be a shadow of itself (despite the almost rabid word of mouth that surrounds his live shows). His use of strings (especially Vyvienne Long’s mournful cello parts) and female vocal accompaniment elevate O beyond the simple singer/songwriter template.
O kicks off with little fanfare; “Delicate” lives up to its name by starting off as a simple strum n’ sing arrangement with a nice acoustic guitar coda to close things out. It’s with “Volcano” that things start to take off; strings cut in immediately, with Lisa Hannigan providing nice harmony vocals. She then sings the second stanza by herself, giving the song some real smolder.
Hannigan is obviously Rice’s secret weapon—for all of his considerable talent, Hannigan’s presence really fleshes his ideas out. She rarely, if ever sings simple background vocals, instead offering countermelodies or completely different points of view. In “The Blower’s Daughter”, Rice laments a romantic’s apology: “Can’t take my eyes off of you”. Simple enough, but the song really gains depth when Hannigan responds in almost ghostly fashion, “Did I say that I want you to?” She starts off “Cold Water” as if she’ll sing it alone, until Rice comes in about 2/3 of the way through to take the song in a wildly different direction. Perhaps Hannigan’s finest moment, though, comes at the very end, as a secret track. She sings the melody to “Silent Night”, but the words are along the lines of “Silent night / Moonlit night / Nothing’s changed nothing is right / I should be stronger than weeping alone / You should be weaker than sending me home / I can’t stop you fighting to sleep / Sleep in Heavenly peace”. As an album closer, it’s absolutely heartbreaking.
With praise for Hannigan’s contributions duly heaped, attention has to swing back around to Rice. Throughout O, he somehow manages the task of sounding alternately lo-fi (in his stripped-down vocals and acoustic melodies) and sophisticated (in the sterling, almost vintage string arrangements). Time after time, the strings build and build, sometimes soaring off into the ether, other times making way for a solitary bass line or acoustic rhythm. Rice’s embellishments range from the subtle (the almost imperceptible sound of children laughing and playing in the U.S. version’s extra cut, “Older Chests”) to the integral (his use of clinking glass as percussion on “Cheers Darlin’”) to the full-blown (the truly operatic buildup in Inuit that marks “Eskimo”). After Hannigan’s delicate intro to “Cold Water”, Rice turns the song into a completely different beast, building up to a crescendo of distorted levels and a furious acoustic break that would do Jimmy Page proud.
In short, Rice isn’t afraid to follow his muse, regardless of whether she inspires him to create artsy cacophonies or gentle lullabies. Sometimes, it gets the better of him (despite the fact that O methodically builds up to “Eskimo”‘s ultra-dramatic crescendo, it still feels a little cheesy), but there’s no way you can penalize him for the effort. With O, Rice has brought something new to the singer/songwriter genre: an accomplished sense of dramatics that keeps his music from ever becoming earthbound.