A Beginner’s Guide To Bravery (Rubyworks)
You can’t miss the fact that David Keenan is Irish, at least as defined by its reference points (or music critic clichés). And I don’t mean his accent.
There’s the impassioned delivery, which in low tones conveys a depth of feeling you could build a house on, and in high tones could shake that house’s foundations with intensity. There’s the mostly acoustic blend of folk and soul and rock and church and pub, which is in a cross-border line from (Belfast’s) Van Morrison to (Dublin’s) Glen Hansard as much as from Memphis and Hibbing to Galway and Derry.
There’s the way songs will rise from swaying, slow-burn verses to driven choruses to a late-in-the-piece climax which can rip your heart out, or your rip your throat as you try to match it singing along (and you will sing along), while going past four minutes, past five minutes, and in four of the 11 songs, past six and seven minutes.
And there’s a flurry of words, densely packed and sometimes spilling over in a torrent, that references matters and people poetic and philosophical, dramatic and emotional, historical and national (Keenan mentions Samuel Beckett within the first minute of the opening song, James Dean, which is about an imagined life for the film star) that puts the subject matter – and by implication the singer – within a great tradition concerned with more than the ephemeral.
As he sings in Good Old Days, “We won’t shed no tears for the good old days/But for talk’s sake, we can mourn them in a song/And the truth be told, they’re what made us up.”
So, yeah, Keenan, from the border town of Dundalk – between Morrison and Hansard you could say - does rack up the touchstones on his debut album. So if you have problems with the genre, run away now for there’s nothing here to convince you otherwise.
For the rest of us the question is, does he do them well? Yes, yes he does. With a caveat, that sometimes pulling back - in length or in imagery or in delivery - would do the material a greater service.
The way he reaches up and out from The Healing centres, in need, a song which pitches Keenan on the edge of something like hysteria. “Are you ready for the healing?” he asks with a rising edge that explodes in chaos just before its early – for this record at least – end.
You can see a similar maelstrom just in front of him at several junctures of A Beginner’s Guide To Bravery, the only question being will he peer in and step back, or dive in?
Keenan stands there from the intersection of voice and violin in Good Old Days and the rough-hewn emotion of Evidence Of Living, which throws in a gospel choir for emphasis after he asks of a blinkered, soul-destroying town “would I find any evidence of living amongst you saddening crowds?”, to the upward force of Altar Wine, where his scream punctuates the play-out, and the crescendo of Subliminal Dublinia, whose voices-from-the-terraces backing seem to inflame his own vocals and the scratching violin.
I like them and in truth that full scale jump into the maelstrom comes less often than he threatens, but I’m actually more emotionally moved, or convinced, by the relative restraint of Love In A Snug and Tin Pan Alley, where Keenan takes up a posture more like Jeff Buckley at Nina Simone’s piano.
No one would accuse either of those of underselling their songs, and they went alright, especially considering they weren’t Irish.