Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Damien Rice & The Story of O

Damien Rice's debut album O came out exactly 15 years ago today. To mark this anniversary, I thought I'd take a look back at the most delicate LP of 2002 and try to work out exactly what it's all about.

Why did Damien Rice call his first album 'O'? Several years ago, I wrote a blog post suggesting several possible explanations: it's an exhortation to God, it's a reference to his Irish heritage, it's a number zero signifying worthlessness! I felt very clever and insightful and pleased with myself until someone on Twitter came along and burst my smug little bubble:

How could I have missed it? In all my pondering and theorising about the symbolism of the letter O, I had overlooked the fact that Amie, O's sixth track, contains a whopping great title drop:

"Amie, come sit on my wall
And read me the Story of O
Tell it like you still believe
That the end of the century
Brings a change for you and me"

As you may be aware, Story of O (or Histoire d'O if you speak French) is an erotic novel that was originally published in the mid-20th century. Its central character, only ever referred to as 'O', is a fashion photographer who willingly becomes a sexual slave and grows more and more submissive as the story goes on; I won't go into the beady details right now, but Story of O can be read in full on the Internet Archive if you're so inclined. I must admit that I haven't read it myself, but from what I've heard it makes 50 Shades of Grey look like an issue of Jackie.

Anyway. If O the album is indeed named after O the fictional character, that casts Damien Rice's debut in an entirely new perspective. Some time after writing that blog post and getting humbled on Twitter back in 2014, I scoured the lyrics of each song on O, searching for themes of submission, humiliation and bondage. I couldn't find many direct references to being stripped, branded, beaten and penetrated, but there are definitely some more subtle forms of submission occurring on this album. Here are a few examples:

  • Opening track Delicate finds Damien Rice asking his lover "why d'you sing hallelujah if it means nothing to you?" He seems irritated that she is singing hymns without conviction, making the empty gestures of religion without truly and fully submitting to God. This could, of course, all be a metaphor for their relationship - perhaps he doesn't feel that his partner is particularly committed to it.

  • Volcano has the line "don't hold yourself like that, you'll hurt your knees", which sounds like it might be something to do with oral sex, but I'm more interested in the chorus, which goes "what I am to you is not real; what I am to you, you do not need; what I am to you is not what you mean to me". This uneven relationship dynamic suggests a certain submissiveness: the boy is utterly devoted to the girl, but she doesn't see him as a serious romantic prospect and so treats him like something that she could cast away at any time. In Story of O, O falls in love with her master even as he continues to treat her like an object, so perhaps there's a parallel to be drawn there.

  • In Cheers Darlin', Damien Rice's narrator submits to shyness but lives to regret it: "I die when he comes around to take you home, I'm too shy, I should have kissed you..."

  • Cold Water opens with the line "cold, cold water surrounds me now, and all I've got is your hand". Here, Rice is surrendering control of his life and placing it in the hands of some saviour - presumably a lover, although it might also be a higher power given all the "Lord, can you hear me now?" stuff that follows. Either way, he is submitting to this rescuer and trusting that they will deliver him from harm.

These are all examples of how O the album might perhaps reflect the submissiveness of its fictional French namesake. However, if you're looking for a more compelling connection between O and Story of O, you need to look at the two tracks that are slap-bang in the middle of Damien Rice's first album: Older Chests and the aforementioned Amie.

Let's start with Older Chests. This is a sad and beautiful song about how time makes submissives of us all, mercilessly stripping us of all comforts as it passes:

"Older gents sit on the fence with their cap in hand, looking grand; they watch their city change" 

The moral of Older Chests seems to be that change is inevitable, but Amie - the very next track - offers a flipped version of that lesson: some things never change, no matter how long you wait.

Here's what Damien Rice told a interviewer in late 2001 when asked why he had chosen the title 'O' for his forthcoming debut album:

"There's this lyric in Amie: 'Amie come sit on my wall, read me the Story of O'. We had thrown out loads of ideas for titles but none of them were like, 'yeah, we really want this'. But when 'O' came we said, 'yeah, that's it'. I guess for me personally when I look at it, the reason why it fits for me is 'cause, like, with relationships...they go round and round in circles and you never learn from mistakes and it's always the same thing over and over. So many of the songs are like that as well, about the same mistakes - that whole thing we do in life - just going around in circles."

Hey, look at that - another explanation I missed last time around. According to Damien Rice himself, 'O' represents a circle, a cycle: things going around and around, patterns never breaking. People waiting for a turning point that never arrives; people who "still believe that the end of the century brings a change..."

O isn't an album about sexual submission, but it is most definitely an album about being dominated - by time, by inevitability, by your own shortcomings. Like O falling in love with the man who uses her (and vainly hoping that her feelings will be reciprocated), there's a tragic naivety to Older Chests (with its hope that time will heal all wounds) and Amie (with its hope that time will shake things up).

More intriguing still, though, is the fact that 'Amie' is the word 'Damien' minus the first and last letters.

Name reduction is a common submission trope. In the film Spirited Away, young Chihiro Ogino (荻野 千尋) is put to work in a bathhouse by a witch who renames her 'Sen' (千) as a way of subjugating her. In the book American Pastoral, U.S. Marine Seymour Levov is dubbed 'Ee-oh' (his surname, stripped of all but its vowel sounds) by his drill sergeant in order to erode his sense of identity while in training. Even O's name is simply a reduction:

"As the author once revealed, the character O actually began as Odile, the name of a close friend who’d once been deeply in love with Albert Camus. 'She knew all about the name and was enchanted,' [Story of O author Dominique] Aury said. 'But after a few pages I decided that I couldn’t do all those things to poor Odile, so I just kept the first letter.'" [Source]

When you first hear Amie, you assume that she's supposed to be Damien Rice's friend or lover or something, but I would suggest that 'Amie' is in fact his 'sub' name - his own equivalent of 'O', 'Sen' and 'Ee-oh'. By erasing two letters from his name, Damien Rice is acknowledging his position of powerlessness and willingly submitting to time, to shyness, to all the other doms whose stilettos stalk this record.

He even goes as far as emasculating himself by using a feminine name. Amie. He's effectively letting life dominate him via lingerie discipline.

This may sound like a stretch, but remember: it's the woman, not the man, whom Damien Rice labelled 'Me' on O's front cover. What do you think that represents?


  1. I always figured that the illustration on the front was a drawing that Lisa Hannigan had given to Damien, but this is a really interesting take on it as well!!

  2. This factoid just kinda ruined one of my favorite albums lol

  3. I needed this. Thank you.

  4. I've just found out a live performance of Amie in 2014 and he explained the theme story behind Amie. And it's really is about a female friend of him which he claimed for them to have a platonic relationship. Once, he came over to her house and misunderstood her invitation for spending the night on her bed, imagined things on his own until the reality brought him back to the ground that she didn't mean it the way he thought.