Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Damien Rice Showdown: 9 vs. O

Damien Rice's 9 (above right) is one of my all-time favourite albums. It's also a favourite of Harry Orme, who I recently met via email; Harry sings and plays guitar for People Poems, a Leeds-based act whose big and beautifully bare songs are quite clearly influenced by the quivery, emotive sound for which Damien Rice is known.

However, as Harry told me a few weeks ago, Rice's debut album O "just edges past" 9 in his book. I took issue with this - I'm firmly of the opinion that 9 >  O - and so I challenged Harry to a kind of verbal duel, to be held right here on The Album Wall.

Below, Harry has very kindly explained why he thinks O is better than 9. First of all, though, here's my argument for the latter...

The Case for 9

by Joel Dear

Perhaps 9 just came along at a better moment than O. I didn't really listen to much music in the early '00s, and when the floodgates finally did open a little later that decade, I was too busy devouring the discographies of R.E.M. and Radiohead and other alt. rock giants to pay any attention to a beige-coloured slip of an album with little more than a scribble on the front cover. 9, on the other hand, could hardly have found me at a better time; I actually didn't get 'round to Damien Rice's second album until late 2007, roughly one year after its initial release, but the me who bought that CD one wet autumn afternoon was the perfect audience for the music thereupon. I was a self-centred teenage idiot who thought he was lonely and depressive and romantic, and those ten tracks suited to a T the persona that I had constructed for myself. I imagine The Smiths scratched a similar itch for people who were teens in the 1980s.

So perhaps that's the only reason why I like 9 better. After all, no less an authority on Damien Rice than Damien Rice himself has stated that 9 is an inferior album, that he never would have released a follow-up to O at all were it not for the insistence of his record label. How can I defend this record when its very creator treats it like the accidental second child that he never actually wanted?

Well, for one thing, 9 is by far the more focused of the two. It's often said that you've got your whole life to write your first album, and just six months to write your second, but that deadline may well have been a positive influence in Rice's case - where O occasionally feels aimless and meandering, 9 is an intense, tightly-plotted work that scarcely wastes a single note.

Consider each album's opening track: you've got Delicate, a five-minute slowpoke that's powerful at times but barely there at others; and you've got 9 Crimes, an astounding infidelity duet that cuts right to the bone and builds to an even more stunning climax than Delicate in spite of being significantly shorter. This eye-on-the-ball approach is a big part of why I prefer 9 to O; song structure is stronger throughout, and musical digressions fewer.

9 also paints with a much broader sonic palette. O's confessional, quiet/loud acoustica is still present and correct (see the gorgeous likes of Grey Room, Dogs, et cetera), but this time around, it's embellished with beautiful string arrangements (The Animals Were Gone), transposed to a sole, sparse piano (Accidental Babies), and flat-out ignored in favour of loud, angsty rock music (Rootless Tree and especially Me, My Yoke + I).

The album covers say it all, I think: O's minimal doodle-art is striking, to be sure, but 9 is so much more colourful, and offers so much more.

The Case for O

by Harry Orme

In the course of writing this post for Joel, I think I've realised that O is my favourite album.

I'd always considered picking a favourite album impossible – how do you compare one genre to another? One era to another? I'd fully subscribed to the 'apples and oranges' way of thinking, but what I've realised is, of all the albums that I've repeatedly returned to, O is the one that has never lost its new car smell. I have a nasty habit of listening to albums to death – I'll grow to like them again, sure, but they'll never regain their initial lofty height. O, for me, somehow remains immune to this effect.

I came to O and 9 at roughly the same time, when the latter was released. I'd been aware of O beforehand (in part due to the ubiquitousness of The Blower's Daughter), but it wasn't until 9's release that I started listening to them both in depth. Perhaps predictably, what drew me into Rice's aesthetic was some minor incident of early-teenage heartbreak – one of my most vivid memories of that year is sitting on a park bench, dripping with naïve angst, wallowing in some rejection, listening to both albums all the way through. In the years since, 9 has yielded some beautiful surprises upon repeat listens (it wasn't until relatively recently that I really appreciated the incredible climax of Grey Room) and it definitely goes to some places that O doesn't (Me, My Yoke + I stands as some sort of beautiful, furious anomaly amongst the rest of Rice's solo output) – but while O may cover less ground, where it does go it leaves an almost definitive path in its wake.

Much of the album is a masterclass – the sparsity of Delicate and The Blower's Daughter; the interplay between Rice, Lisa Hannigan and cellist Vyvienne Long on Volcano; the orchestra of layered guitars on Cannonball; the rich, soaring strings on Amie; the seething intensity of Cheers Darlin' and Rice's section of I Remember; the ultra-exposed neo-folk of Older Chests and Hannigan's section of I Remember; these have all become part of an almost unignorable blueprint for anyone working in the genre from 2002 onwards (there's even an ethereal proto-Bon Iver layered vocal in the bridge of Cold Water).

But just because I associate Rice with nailing down the 21st century singer-songwriter vibe before it was cool doesn't mean he actually got there first (my knowledge of the genre pre-2000 being far from exhaustive). And even if he did, it doesn't mean that he did it best. So what am I trying to say? What of my hyperbolic assertion at the beginning?

You may have noticed that I haven't spent any time putting 9 down – I love that album. I don't think there's anything wrong with it. I just think there's something exceptionally right with O; for me, it's everything you've heard everyone else do, but by the guy who meant it. There's nothing to back that claim (other, I suppose, than the interview that Joel referenced) but I have an unshakeable feeling that you can hear it in every part of every song – in his voice, in the songwriting, in his guitar playing. As soon as I hear those opening bars of Delicate, I'm totally sold on a deep, earnest intent being present – and it feels like I'm listening to it for the first time, every time.

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What do you think? Do you prefer 9, or are you more of an person? Or perhaps you think that last year's My Favourite Faded Fantasy is better than either of them? Let the world know what you reckon on Twitter. And don't forget to check out People Poems over on Bandcamp!

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