Album Review: Damien Rice—“My Favourite Faded Fantasy”

By Angelo Mateo, Feature Photo via DIY

The acoustic singer-songwriter genre is overrated and over-saturated. As I often tell my friends, I’m wary of new singer-songwriters. But every once in a while, a singer-songwriter captures your attention and stands out from the rest of the genre. The best acoustic singer-songwriters understand the virtue of silence, know when to put power into their voice or to deliver the words in a whisper, and they rarely ever become melodramatic so as to become a parody of themselves.

Damien Rice, in my mind, is one of these few singer-songwriters that has always stood out in the genre. He’s best known for his 2002 album, O. In 2006, he released 9, which failed to live up to his debut. But his third album, My Favourite Fantasy comes eight years after 9 and much has changed in Rice’s life and sound. The most apparent change: this is the first album without long-time collaborator and once girlfriend, Lisa Hannigan. From the start of the album, her absence manifests itself in Rice’s lyrical content, as well as the lack of backing vocal harmonies. Let’s be clear: My Favourite Faded Fantasy is a breakup album. I would assume that the album is about ending his relationship with Hannigan, but the purpose of this review is not to delve into Rice’s personal life. The fact that it’s a breakup album makes Rice’s album easier to understand, with its songs of wallowing depression, acceptance of his current situation, and his redemptive rise.

I admire a lot of Irish acoustic singer-songwriters. Damien Rice, along with Lisa Hannigan, Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova and others, captivate me in a way that American folk singers fail to do. They trade in the fingerpicking, Starbucks-marketed sound of many American folk singers for raw emotion. Case in point, Rice’s “Cannonball” on his debut album O. This song is a personal favourite for its hammer-ons and pull-offs and its strong lyrical content. One of my favourite lines from the song: “So come on courage, teach me to be shy.” It’s a song full of contradictions, and Rice is fully aware of these flaws. But it’s the vocal delivery of these words that are the most powerful, where Rice sounds delicate and hurt. Rice does this very well, at times sounding fragile and broken, and at other times, sounding powerful and resonant, all the while sounding genuine and not exaggerated.

Does My Favourite Faded Fantasy live up to these expectations? Though certain songs sound flat, Rice manages to keep the album sincere while adding new instrumentation, courtesy of producer Rick Rubin. This is a return to form for Rice, harkening back to O, but it also hints at potential musical paths in the future. Rubin is a surprising match for Rice, although upon Rubin’s recent production credits include Ed Sheeran’s X and Angus and Julia Stone’s self-titled album. Rubin, whose most recent highlight work is Kanye West’s Yeezus, adds layers of lush instrumentation to Rice’s music where he once favoured barebones production.

The first and last songs, “My Favourite Faded Fantasy” and “Long Long Way,” best showcase Rubin’s influence on Rice’s sound. These songs are the most apparent departure from his previous work. The first song, especially, has Rice using his higher vocal register. It’s hard not to think that, were Lisa Hannigan still collaborating with him, she would be on this song. Distorted guitar, violin and piano all fight over each other producing a chaotic sound that matches the mood the song’s lyrical content. It’s very different from Rice’s previous albums, but it works.

My-Favourite-Faded-Fantasy-608x608[1]

Album art for My Favorite Faded Fantasy

The middle part of the album is more familiar for Rice’s older fans. “The Greatest Bastard” is quickly becoming one of my favourite Damien Rice songs. Its emotional crux is the self-deprecating line, “Am I the greatest bastard that you know?” Surrounding that is a symmetrical lyrical structure, asking pointed questions like, “Didn’t I?” “Didn’t you?” and then “Didn’t we?” This is ultimately a song about regret in a relationship, about the bonds we create and about those ties we sever when we end the relationship. This song could have been overdone, but Rice keeps the song grounded. “Colour Me In” is also in Rice’s barebones style. It’s reminiscent of Feist’s “The Park” off of The Reminder, with a similar chord progression and vocal melody. Rice sings, “Love let me down,” showing his evident cynicism about relationships. Lastly, in “The Box”, Rice is trying to come to an acceptance with the end of the relationship. Rice shouts, “I am trying but I don’t fit in this box that you put me in. I could be wild and free but God forbid you might envy me.” There is a sense that the bonds between Rice and the ex-lover still exist and they are not easily broken.

Some songs fail to land powerfully. Clocking in at over nine minutes, “It Takes a Lot to Know a Man” ends up as the weakest track on the album. The song is overproduced with layers of drums, piano, violin and choir-like backing vocals that all fail to serve the purpose of the song. Instead, the track feels overdramatic. “It Takes a Lot to Know a Man” could learn from “I Don’t Want to Change You,” which also isn’t a perfect track, but it’s much more subtle than the former. If there’s a song on the album that is best positioned for radio play, it’s “I Don’t Want To Change You.” It’s not terrible, but it puts Rice in the same league as James Blunt.

The ending of the album has two of my favourite songs on the album. “Trusty and True” sounds like a mission statement for this album when Rice sings, “We can’t take back what is past, so let us start from here.” This is Rice rediscovering himself, both after the end of his relationship but also his musical self. It is a redemptive and uplifting song, in contrast with earlier tracks on the album. “Long Long Way” sounds like a reprise, sharing much of the same sound signature as the first song. This is Rice reflecting at the end of his emotional journey. The instrumentation on this song is fascinating and captivating. The chimes, the feedback and the horns all create a dreamlike atmosphere. I’d love to see Rice explore this sound in the future.

Damien Rice’s My Favourite Faded Fantasy is a wonderful album, though it has its weak spots. At least to me, it stands out among its peers and explores a different production style than Rice’s previous works. Rick Rubin adds another dimension to Rice that sometimes works beautifully, but other times fails to register emotionally. There is something captivating about this album, and if you like the acoustic singer-songwriter genre, this album is a must-listen. (Atlantic)

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