I’ve found myself on both sides of a very high, yet proverbial, fence made of expectations many times this year. Forget the hackneyed cliché of the sophomore slump for the briefest of moments, except when using it in the loosest terms, as a bad album following a good one. For instance, even though it was their ninth album, it could be argued that U2’s Pop suffered from the dreaded affliction. This year, while some rock mainstays such as Destroyer and Morrissey kicked the crap out of old man expectation, others didn’t fare so well. Snow Patrol, Keane and Muse all took a header after a modicum of success, though their big time record companies work hard not to prove it so. The jury is still out on the upcoming Modest Mouse, which has the added expectation of greatness thanks to the inclusion of new group `member,’ Johnny Marr. With the exception of Keane, none of these bands had only one album under their belts. 9, the sophomore album from Irish singer / songwriter Damien Rice, was dropped on consumers as quickly and quietly as Thom Yorke’s solo debut, yet most reviews don’t find it near as favorable.
“9 Crimes,” for which I can only guess the album is named as the disc contains ten songs in total, started as a worthy fight against the slump. First of all, it’s pretty ballsy and confident to start your album with your backup singer’s verse. Lisa Hannigan, the winsome Sloane Peterson to Rice’s cocky, yet flawed Ferris Bueller persona, shares less vocal time with Rice than on the debut, but “9 Crimes” is almost as dramatic and confessional as the stunning “Cold Water.” As an aside, there’s almost no better use of a Damien Rice song, or any song for that matter, than as “Cold Water” in the introductory scene of Girl in the Café. I’m just saying. “The Animals Were Gone” follows in much the same manner, bleak and lonely, and with a similar trait, the downplaying of Rice’s guitar playing and the emphasis on voice. It’s not necessarily a bad choice, just one that finds Rice using tracks like “The Blower’s Daughter,” “Cheers Darlin'” and the aforementioned “Cold Water” as jumping off points.
While that works on the opening two tracks, I didn’t quite know where he was going when “Elephant” started in much the same way, with incredibly muted (read: hardly played) guitars and Rice’s lone voice. By the time the chorus rolled around, however, he is quickly redeemed as it ends up to be the prettiest song since its thematic precedent, “The Blower’s Daughter.” In fact, “Elephant” was originally named “The Blower’s Daughter Part 2.” In “Daughter,” Rice sings that they’ll “both forget the breeze,” while in “Elephant, Rice sings, “Do you still forget the breeze?” By the bridge, the song explodes with noise and energy, an energy that can only come from bitter rage. He ends the song with a line that’s almost as good as the ending for “Daughter,” that being, “But you can’t make me happy / Quite as good as me / Well, you know that’s a lie.”
Rice’s guitar finally opens a song with “Rootless Tree,” a song that has as much bile and vindictive cursing as Ani DiFranco’s “Untouchable Face,” and thankfully, just as much passion. “Dogs” is actually the closest thing to mainstream that Rice gets on 9, as he sounds like one of the myriad faceless, nameless singer / songwriters in the game, you know, all the ones trying to sound like Nick Drake. “Coconuts Skins” plays like a combination of Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer.” “Me, My Yoke & I” is the only song I recognized immediately upon hearing the album. Rice played this song as an early precursor to the album on his most recent tour of the states. It’s essentially a rock song about sex, possibly one of the oldest clichés in the book, but Rice’s take is anything but cliché, avoiding silliness by embracing what is bilious and raw. “Accidental Babies” ditches the guitar for the piano, and finds Rice treading familiar ground with the tale of the jealous lover, but delivers it just as well, if not better than say, Jackson Browne (“Somebody’s Baby”), David Bowie (“Letter to Hermione”) or, um, Rick Springfield (“Jessie’s Girl”).
Okay, so maybe 9 isn’t as good as O, but it’s not nearly as disappointing as the follow-up albums from Snow Patrol, Keane and Muse. (And, by the way, is Rice trying to name each album after a digit in his license plate or something?) Chances are, if you liked the mopey downtrodden anti-hero from the first album, you’ll find more than enough to like here. Rice walked that tricky line of trying not to veer from the path laid forward by O, and in so doing, let down some critics hoping for something a little more daring. Then again, maybe they’re forgetting Moby’s Animal Rights or Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. No, Rice knows where he stands, and that happens to be in the midst of songs about cheating and thus losing a lover. Of course, you’d think he’d get it by now, but then again maybe he wants to be miserable. It has certainly aided his career.