Saturday, March 26, 2016

Damien Rice - My Favourite Faded Fantasy

The last time Damien Rice put out an album, it was 2006. In order to get a sense of how long ago that really was, let’s consider this: the top selling album of that year was the High School Musical soundtrack. Also consider that the number one song of the year was Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day,” the American Idol send-off tune that I’m fairly certain no one on planet Earth has listened to since. Other hits from that particular year of music included the ubiquitous Gnarls Barkley classic “Crazy,” the insufferable James Blunt weeper “You’re Beautiful,” and Natasha Bedingfield’s arguably more annoying smash, “Unwritten.” There’s a reason all of these songs feel like prehistoric artifacts now: in music, eight years is an eternity.

In Rice’s case, those years have indeed felt like a lifetime. I do remember buying his 2006 release, 9, while on Thanksgiving Break during my sophomore year…of high school. However, the feelings and memories I associate with those songs truly do feel like they came from a different life, and I can only imagine that such feelings are exacerbated by the fact that we haven’t heard so much as a single from Rice since. Quite simply, once the final notes faded on 9 closer, “Sleep Don’t Weep,” his story dropped off.

Personally, it’s been a long time since I expected to get another record from Rice. I don’t say that because his music is a relic of its time: if anything, Rice’s raw, confessional, acoustic singer/songwriter sound was always an anomaly in the mid-2000s sort-of-mainstream. Rather, I say it because, for a very long time, Rice seemed to be in a place where he was either afraid to go back to music, or where it would have been too painful for him to do so. Many of the best songs on Rice’s first two albums were made what they were thanks to the luminescent female backing vocals of Lisa Hannigan. For a moment in time, Rice and Hannigan shared a relationship that was both musical and personal. She was his muse and his lover, and when the bond between the two of them shattered—supposedly sometime during the tour for 9—Rice retreated from the spotlight. In 2009, he told an interviewer from Hot Press just how much Hannigan had meant to him: “I would give away all of the music success, all the songs, and the whole experience to still have Lisa in my life.”

The first time I read that quote, I stopped even thinking about a third full-length from Rice. There was so much pain and longing in those words. Too much. And sure, we all kind of wanted Rice to channel that anguish into his most personal and powerful album to date. But I always felt like he blamed his music and his stardom for tearing apart his closest personal relationship, and I fully expected him to continue on with his reclusive lifestyle for many years to come. Needless to say, I had no idea how to expect when whispers emerged earlier this year that Rice was finally going to break his radio silence. Would he change his sound? Would he still have the same penchant for turning songs into emotional wrecking balls? Would the new album live up to the legacy of his first two records?

As it turns out, Rice hasn’t changed his sound much, but his writing is still every bit as visceral as it always has been, and his long-awaited third album, called My Favourite Faded Fantasy, absolutely lives up to the legacy of his previous work. Eight songs and roughly 50 minutes in length, Fantasy is a sprawling and ambitious album full of long, lingering compositions. Seven of the eight songs chug right past the five-minute mark, and half of them go on for longer than six. Needless to say, Rice isn’t fooling around here.

Luckily, Damien Rice is a magnetic enough talent that he can command attention for long periods of time. That much is made clear by this album’s opening salvo and title track, a six-minute slow burn that, while about love and regret (like many of Rice’s songs) sounds almost like a ghost story. Credit Rice’s vocal performance on the track, which isn’t in his usual emotive baritenor, but in a haunting falsetto. It’s tough not to hear the stylistic choice as a reference to Hannigan, whose own ghostly soprano lead the way eight years ago on 9 opener, “9 Crimes.” It even feels like Rice is adopting some of his ex-bandmate’s trembling vocal timbre here, as if the song was written for her to sing, but now he’s doing it himself because she’s not in his life anymore. The subtext lends extra weight and hurt to the lyrics, about someone who is scared to be with the person they love. “You could be my poison, my cross, my razor blade/I could love you more than life if I wasn’t so afraid,” Rice sings. Just like that, he’s brought us back into his world.

And really, that’s the most remarkable thing about My Favourite Faded Fantasy: it makes it feel as if no time has passed at all since we last heard from Rice. It’s difficult to imagine someone who was moved by “The Blower’s Daughter” back in 2003 not clicking instantly with the resplendent melodic line of “I Don’t Want to Change You” (arguably the year’s best chorus), or with the spine-tingling moment in “The Greatest Bastard” when Rice’s vocals kick up an octave. Though he often brings in strings to flesh out these arrangements, Rice’s songs live and die on the strength his vocals and lyrics, and both of these songs—particularly the regretful “Bastard”—portray a palpable honesty in voice and text that is rare to find in music these days. It was rare back in 2003, when Rice let loose on songs like “Delicate” and “Amie,” and it’s perhaps even rarer today, when he’s still singing his songs with the kind of reckless abandon that no one this side of Glen Hansard can muster.

Not that My Favourite Faded Fantasy is nearly as good as O, but let’s be honest: that’s one of the all-time greats. There are times when Rice’s efforts to pen long, drawn-out songs fall flat. Particularly egregious is “It Takes A Lot to Know a Man,” a nine-and-a-half minute, self-indulgent monster of a song that is lodged awkwardly into the track two position. A dull melody drags the song down before it hits minute number three, and by the time the track has shifted into its second part—a four-and-a-half-minute instrumental break—many listeners will have lost interest. “Man” is simply a momentum killer and a disruptor of the album’s flow, and it makes the title track feel weirdly disconnected from the rest of the record.

Rice is more often than not a peerless expert of craft, though, and its testament to his skill as a songwriter that the runtimes for this album’s other “longer” songs simply fly by. “Trusty and True,” for instance, goes on for over eight minutes and still feels too brief. Right from the first pangs of acoustic guitar that open the song, the penultimate “True” has all the magnetism of Rice’s very best songs. Not only does it feature some of his finest poetry (“We never wanted to be lusty or lewd, nor tethered to prudish strings/And we never wanted to be jealously tuned, nor withered into ugly things,” he croons in the second verse), it is also one of his most ambitiously arranged compositions. Sweet and welcoming female vocals join the texture halfway through, conveying emotion and surrender in wordless murmurs that transform the song into a trance-like reverie.

The entire end section, meanwhile, plays like a church-bound hymn, building as Rice sings a simple revolving refrain that, somewhat like the piano line from R.E.M.’s “Nightswimming,” feels like it was meant to go on forever. “Come, come along/Come with sorrows and songs/Come however you are/Just come,” Rice sings. Every time he comes to the end of one line, he flows directly into another “come along” or “come alone” and restarts, shifting the lyrics slightly, but keeping the melody intact as the music swells around him. It’s the album’s catharsis, a moment that not only welcomes listeners into its arms like some of the more icy heartbreakers at play here do not (raw and fractious, “The Box” is especially harrowing), but also a moment where Rice seems to be genuinely enjoying making music again.

There’s a lot of heartbreak on this album. You can hear it in the way Rice sings like Lisa on the title track; you can hear it in his voice as it cracks into falsetto on the line “I never meant to let you down” during “The Greatest Bastard”; you can certainly hear it in the downtrodden, grey-scale strains of “Colour Me In,” or during album closer “Long Long Way,” which sounds like “Cold Water” if it were broadcast through that wormhole from Interstellar. Make no mistake, My Favourite Faded Fantasy is, on the whole, an incredibly emotionally exhausting listen, and that fact alone will probably mean I play it less than some of my other favorite albums this year. But that doesn’t obscure the quality of these songs, which is, on average, astronomically high.

For so long, most of us expected never to hear another album from Damien Rice. Getting one at all would have been a gift; getting one that is this genuine, this honest, this fucking good, is just…it's not something that happens very often. And I don’t know if Rice wrote this record about Lisa, or about someone or something else in his life. I’m just glad he wrote it, and that he shared it, and that we have it at last. Because he’s one of the best we’ve ever had, and talent like his is something the world needs.

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