In early 2003, Damien Rice’s O (which came out in 2002 in the U.K.) started making the rounds of the major labels. I was working at Island Records at the time, and I recall the collection of “ooohs” and “aaahs” the album left in it’s initial wake. The album didn’t do a whole lot for me. I found it pleasant to listen to; it sounded good sonically, and it was obvious that the guy was intense, man, but I didn’t get the sense of any real soul underneath – it was all earnest and self-conscious “passion.” If there was an emo division for European singer-songwriters, this record would clearly have been at the top of the heap. (And it hit the top: O won the Shortlist Prize for 2003 and went gold in the U.S., and triple platinum in the U.K.)
Soon after, Rice had a showcase at Joe’s Pub, which was attended by a ton of labels. I was there with the Island crew, and a couple of songs into his set my laissez-faire attitude about Mr. Rice was quickly replaced by one of irritation. Preciousness seeped out of every note he played and sang; a vibe of “I’m an artiste” all-pervasive. There wasn’t a moment of humor or lightness – it was a fetishization of depression; the kind of romanticized downer that most of the world is smart enough to give up by the time they’re old enough to know better. Not so the crowd at Joe’s Pub on that winter night. Most of the audience had a rapturous look on their face as they watched the show; I quickly knew that I was waaaaaay in the minority in my opinion about Mr. Rice…and I also knew that this was the kind of stuff that a lot of people eat up.
Fast forward almost four years later, I’m listening to Damien’s new album, 9, and the word that comes to mind over and over again is sincerity. Often, people give sincerity a free pass because they confuse being sincere with being authentic. Sincerity is the pretense of authenticity. It’s the overwhelming sincerity of Damien Rice’s music that gives me the icky feeling that I have, a feeling that I’m listening to shtick as opposed to something real, especially when I hear lines like “I love your depression and I love your double chin/I love most everything you bring to this offering” (“The Animals Were Gone"). The tortured soul routine in Rice’s hands comes off as self-flagellation, a device in which the artist tells how awful he is, which is then supposed to elevate him in our eyes, newly absolved from sin because he has confessed it to us. I’m sure this works for many; for me, it occurs as fraudulent - an artist deceiving himself first, and then deceiving his audience.
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