This is another of those records, like Maroon, that I am embarrassed and shocked to find on my list. After all, that pretentious Canadian snob Nick Perreault joyously told me that Damien Rice creates the “safest music ever.” Fair enough. “Artistic” indie girls the world over love O and swoon as they dream of rescuing Rice from his heartbreak. Fair enough. But for whatever reason, for a few months in 2004, O meant the world to me.
2004 was a weird year for me. Between two life-defining terrible relationships, I had a brief interlude in which I was single and uninterested but surrounded by new friends and still undiagnosed bipolar. I had a complete emotion breakdown one night in early February, prompted by God knows what. But a few weeks later, I made the 45-minute drive to the nearest record store and bought O.
And O is a record on the cusp of complete emotional breakdown. Rice sings every syllable as though he’s about to crack, fragile and wavering. I didn’t have a girl to attach most of these songs to at first, but the feeling was right. I remember driving back from Atlanta, alone on Valentine’s Day, and listening to “Cheers Darlin’,” a halfhearted anthem to bitterness that managed to work for me anyway.
I eventually found a girl to attach them to, and I remember that in the early stages of that relationship I went fly-fishing with my friend Garrett. As we stood by the 40-degree river in pre-dawn, I tried not to tell him the story but kept hearing lines from O in my head:
And so it is the colder waterAnd especially “Cannonball”:
The blower’s daughter
The pupil in denial
I can’t take my eyes off of you
It’s not hard to fallI did--I told Garrett, and I lost the girl, five or six times, actually--and if I didn’t think much about O after my 18-hour move to Omaha (the last time I remember listening to this record in earnest), it still makes me shiver in the 6 a.m. chill.
And I don’t want to scare her
It’s not hard to fall
And I don’t want to lose
Say what you will about Damien Rice—and I’ve said plenty, starting with the overindulgence of two (terrible) hidden bonus tracks and ending with that aggravating dramatic gasp he does almost constantly—the man knows how to record. I remember hearing that he recorded O in his bedroom, but you’d never guess it. The acoustic guitar sounds crisp and full, and I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a percussion sound I liked better. He soaks the record in strings--mostly just cello, but he slathers the full 1940s film score orchestra onto “Amie”--and while I’m usually not a fan of that sound, it really works here.
Then there’s the duets. Rice is accompanied on nearly every song by the vocals of one Lisa Hannigan, about whom I know nothing and who, I am told, no longer plays with him. A pity. Her vocals bring his back down to earth--they’re soft but not weepy, strong but not intrusive. Also, twist of fate: That girl I thought about down by the river was named Lisa. Not a pity.
I think, for a certain segment of the population—and I am not sure if I am part of this group or not--Rice is the indie-rock equivalent of Roy Orbison. He lacks Orbison’s glorious range, but he produces those same mini-symphonies of teenage loss and heartbreak. These days, I couldn’t care less what he’s doing, and I’ll probably never buy or listen to another of his records, but for that stretch of time, I needed to hear someone more banged-up than me—even if it was mostly for dramatic effect.
The Blower’s Daughter ****
Older Chests ****
Cheers Darlin’ ****
Cold Water ****
I Remember ****
Silent Night **