- Aarik Danielsen
Damien Rice's "O"
Wires somewhere within me lose faith, finding fault with each other.
Emotions steer my days—feelings made manifest in distressed sighs, anxious talk, almost burdensome wonder. Yet I rarely cry. Worn connections worry the system, elevating tension over tears.
Thankfully, Damien Rice’s voice was made to travel damaged circuits.
Thankfully, Damien Rice’s voice was made to travel damaged circuits. Twenty years after entering the atmosphere, at least three moments on Rice’s solo debut “O” still engage my innermost workings, causing a catch in my throat.
The telltale guitar riff on “Cannonball,” ever pressing forward, ever willing love into being. The reverse Leonard Cohen moment (“And why’d you sing Hallelujah / If it means nothing to you?”) which rings throughout “Delicate,” Rice ushering his lover into a reel that might collapse at any moment.
Then there’s the opening statement of “The Blower’s Daughter.” Just four words, “And so it is,” clothed in all the gravity and soul Rice can muster, four words sounded from the station where all you have left is what’s passed between you and another person.
Each of “O’s” 10 compositions sound as if they welled up within Rice’s chest while shuffling sidewalks, barely sheltered from the Dublin damp by a threadbare coat.
Rice’s voice, which staggers even in notes of quiet resignation, is the album’s heart. Just 27 during its recording, his instrument sits somewhere between fellow Irishmen Van Morrison and Glen Hansard; capable of baritone lament and angelic falsetto, woozy murmurs and billowing passion.
Each of “O’s” 10 compositions sound as if they welled up within Rice’s chest while shuffling sidewalks, barely sheltered from the Dublin damp by a threadbare coat. What warmed him, the songs testify: remnant whiskey orbiting the breath, the pull of promised kisses, the next note.
Twenty-one at “O’s” release, I counted myself the songwriter’s acolyte, a younger brother to Rice and his peers. Never dressing in the vestments of Angry Young Men, I upheld romance as its own religion. And albums like “O” were sacred texts.
“O had a distinct, entrancing hint of small-hours weirdness about it, but it nevertheless contained the kind of songs that people played at their weddings,” Alexis Petridis wrote for The Guardian in 2014.
How faith dawns is a mystery. Perhaps my devotion to devotion began with the “old soul” prophecies adults spoke over my head yet within earshot. Maybe I misread textbooks on destiny. Whatever the source, I grew into my skin as “another born romantic,” to borrow from John Mellencamp. Another boy Icarus.
When Rice broaches the chorus of “Cannonball” with the line “Stones taught me to fly,” I heard my story. Forever a burden to my beloved, forever wanting to shed my weight and gladden someone’s heart. And I added my amen.
In October 2002, I sat unguarded in the presence of my eventual wife. We spoke of our budding affection in measured tones, then flung ourselves toward love’s greater drama. “O” formed the soundtrack of our early relationship, whether or not we coaxed Rice’s voice from the stereo.
We accepted as gospel its message of love’s elemental strength, fierce enough to save or ruin.
We accepted as gospel its message of love’s elemental strength, fierce enough to save or ruin. Rice chases his most starry-eyed notes with desperation, and tints even the saddest tones with tenderness.
You hear this tentative balance in the brushed jazz swoon of “Volcano,” as Rice and regular duet partner Lisa Hannigan question whether we trade raw passion like the true gift of the magi.
Desire suffuses “The Blower’s Daughter” with its invocation, “No love, no glory.” The song’s refrain (“I can’t take my eyes off you”) changes with every fine variation in Rice’s breathing, the slightest break in his voice. Rice mutters through the track’s final measures, as if dizzied both by damn good luck at love and the dissipating life expectancy of desire.
Like “The Blower’s Daughter,” “Cannonball” seems to savor love’s sacraments; to still have “a little bit of your taste in my mouth” the ultimate grace.
Moments beyond “Cannonball’s” close, “Older Chests” and “Amie” lay bare the urgency bolstering Rice’s ballads. Time, like love, cannot be held too tightly or tightly enough; this is our great human paradox. The former song acknowledges the weathering effects of age, the encroaching shadows of death.
In this way “O” is the Psalms and Song of Solomon, but also Isaiah 22. We must eat, drink, make love and marry for tomorrow we die.
Where I once heard “Cannonball” as the album’s heartbeat, “Amie” now presents itself. Shot through with ancient echoes yet seizing the moment, the song forms an earthbound prayer; alighting upon a woman, hopeful she might read, sing or tend him from one life to the next, from pain to somewhere like heaven.
The song is full of sad miracles: the way cinematic strings frame Rice’s hope against hope (“Tell it like you still believe / That the end of the century / Brings a change for you and me”); how his voice sounds as if he knows the whole world is beautiful and decaying at once.
I am no less romantic—or melodramatic—twenty years after “O.” I still read arrows in my wife’s glances, feel the ghostly draft of her absence, come alive at her slightest touch. But romance is less my religion, more like one of God’s rarest gifts. Somewhere between the Holy Spirit and the treetops.
Does the music reveal its true form or do we?
No longer do I assign preeminence to my love; no longer do I see myself standing among the world’s sad-eyed valentines. July fireworks only last 15 or 20 minutes for a reason—no one goes on living at a fever pitch.
Perhaps even Rice cannot sustain such a space; he’s only made two albums since “O,” the last in 2014. In the spaces between, he branched his beard and visited a place like the sea aboard a vessel like therapy, as he told The Guardian.
Does the music reveal its true form or do we? I still hear my 41-year-old self in Rice’s 20-year-old music as different strains emerge from a permanent record. Perhaps the change is embodied most by a song like “Cold Water,” once the sound of love clinging to our ankles, pulling us under the surface.
Love forever the entryway, forever the stone and stained glass, inseparable from faith, hope, and transcendence.
Now in the plaintive piano, in Rice’s gasps and Hannigan’s full-voiced reply, and in the monk-like chorus which meets them both, I hear a more abiding truth. We are born into nothing less than the love between people, but hopefully learn to revel in the something more.
We pass through an endless series of cathedrals. Throwing open their doors, we stop to light candles and mouth prayers in some, rush past the altars of others. Love forever the entryway, forever the stone and stained glass, inseparable from faith, hope, and transcendence.
God willing, in twenty more years, Damien Rice will offer me a different “O” than I hear tonight. The songs changed by the love which carried me on—not only from her, but from the God fulfilling prayers she cannot answer and promises she cannot keep.
Whatever I hear and project beyond myself will align with Rice’s own poetry, preserved in “Volcano,” his words enough to keep tears close:
What I give to you
Is just what I'm going through
This is nothing new, no no
Just another phase of finding