There’s a percentage of this generation of music lovers for whom the albums O and 9 made a wholly unique and irrevocable impact. After moderate success throughout the late ‘90s with the band Juniper, Ireland’s Damien Rice self-produced the pair of truly timeless records in 2002 and 2006 respectively. In the intervening years, their stunningly intimate fragility has not only endured, but gone on to be the soundtrack for countless loves both won and lost – in cinema and TV as well as the real lives of fans the word over. Yet discounting a handful of feature-spots on various friends’ records and painfully sporadic touring, there’s been nothing but torturous silence from Rice since 9’s release 8 years ago to the day. In many ways though, it’s something of a testament to Damien Rice as an artist that it’s taken so long for My Favourite Faded Fantasy to arrive, especially after so many of us feared we may never hear from him again.
Under the enviable guidance of super-producer Rick Rubin (aka. Modern music’s King Midas) and after a process which Rice himself describes as “learning to walk again”, My Favourite Faded Fantasy truly proves to be worth the wait. The opening title track is a perfect example with its jaw-dropping dynamism carefully blooming and wilting under Rice’s – until now – dearly missed vocals. Breathy and androgynous, they’re as otherworldly as ever and he should go down as having one of the most expressive and compelling voices of his generation.
It’s interesting that for an artist who built his legacy with a band of pretty-much unknown friends from Ireland (although among them, session drummer Tom “Tomo” Osander and successful solo artist Lisa Hannigan), the credits for My Favourite Faded Fantasy read like a who’s who of folk-rock from America and beyond. Much of the album’s legwork is done by rightfully acclaimed multi-instrumentalists Zac Rae and Joel Shearer of L.A. band Pedestrian and Shahzad Ismaily – most recently known from his bass work on Sam Amidon’s gorgeous Lily-O. Gillian Welch’s sideman David Rawlings lends some gorgeous guitar work to the title track and the swooping chorale of Trusty and True and Markéta Irglová (of fellow Irish band The Swell Season) makes gorgeous and subtle contributions to both The Box and closer Long Long Way.
But for all the incredible help at his disposal, it’s still Damien – with nothing but his voice and his impeccable songwriting – who truly shines. Second single I Don’t Want To Change You is sparsely and sympathetically anchored by almost imperceptible strings and Wurlitzer before it grows steadily and organically to the kind of climax that etched The Blower’s Daughter and Elephant so permanently into the hearts of his fans. And the fans are truly who this record is for. Shortest track The Box clocks in at 4 minutes 27 seconds and the sprawling opus of It Takes a Lot to Know a Man teeters just over nine and a half minutes so there’s clearly no preconception that Rice is trying to “break out” or “cross over” with album number three, but that’s perfectly fine. Preferable even. Music like this tends to only command the attention of those with whom it resonates emotionally, and those willing to pay it the diligence it deserves.
It’s difficult to pin down specifically what sets Damien Rice apart from the run-of-the-mill heartbroken folkie, but he’s truly one of a kind. Maybe it’s the sweeping dynamic gut-punches that cautiously build and explode throughout songs like Colour Me In or latest single The Greatest Bastard or it could be the sheer, unguarded honesty with which every word is whispered, strained or righteously howled. Much like its predecessors, My Favourite Faded Fantasy is the kind of record that will take months, even years to fully appreciate as it slowly but surely weaves its way into the lives of all those who feel its profundity. It’s a truly breathtaking album that completely justifies the almost-decade taken for its gestation and let none of us take for granted how lucky we are to have an artist as fine as Damien Rice back making music.