Sound — 8
Ever since breaking into the scene over a decade ago with his well-acclaimed single, "The Blower's Daughter," Damien Rice, the romantic Irish folk singer/songwriter who wields his woe with aplomb, has always been sandwiched between two perspectives. Of course, there's the positive outlook that see Rice as one of the great 21st-century folk musicians that can compose damn compelling music worth crying to. Then there are those that see Rice as a calculated musician simply walking down a well-paved musical path (surely named "Jeff Buckley Avenue"), tugging on heartstrings that have already worn thin. But as people have had an ongoing Goldilocks-esque fight between Rice's music not being "really" emotional enough or being "too" emotional, the general consensus of Rice's small discography is pretty clear. As his debut album, "O," was highly-lauded for the newcomer in 2002, his follow-up album, "9," would get much meager reception in comparison, with more people seeing Rice in the less-flattering latter perspective at that point.
Whether for that reason or another, Rice would soon take a silent bow and walk away from the spotlight trained on him, only giving the musician in him an occasional fix via low-profile contributions. But it would be foolish to think that after so long, Rice wouldn't be working on anything new for himself, and with little attempt for reacquainting or presentation, he simply announced no more than two months ago that he would be releasing a new album, entitled "My Favourite Faded Fantasy."
Though the downtrodden musical spirit of Rice is certainly still alive and intact, in opening track, "My Favourite Faded Fantasy," he first evokes a pensive Thom Yorke circa "OK Computer." Built mainly with electric instruments like gentle electric guitar plucks and tastefully glossy synths, Rice starts the album off with the shiniest track he's ever made. He then follows it with one of the most elaborate songs he's ever made, "It Takes A Lot to Know A Man." As the longest-running song in Rice's catalog (that doesn't contain hidden tracks), Rice brings back the familiar arrangement of acoustic guitar and piano to guide the song, but other sonic elements are more grounded than normal - the rhythm sections are tighter and more solid, Rice's voice is more assertive rather than the timid whisper vocals expected from him, and the strings involved play the more practical role of amplifying the main melody rather than overcasting the entire song with their own tones.
After the first fifteen minutes, Rice sits back down in his comfort zone, and the middle stretch of the album adheres to Rice's typical formula of quaint acoustic intros, string buildups and bombastic crests that settle back down to the tranquility the tracks began with. Though this stark return-to-form reduces some tracks to feel meek by comparison, the bass presence in "I Don't Want to Change You" and the rare appearance of brass instruments in "The Box" are welcome nuances this time around. Rice gets back into his ambitious stance with the penultimate "Trusty and True," where he extends his usual arrangement by adding organ melodies, whistling synths, clarinets, guitar harmonics, and a snowball-effect layering of vocals that conjures the biggest crest of the album; and the closing "Long Long Way" bears enough glimmer to be the relative of the opening track "My Favourite Faded Fantasy," but the organic instruments, especially the clarinets, help anchor the song from getting too spacey.
Lyrics — 7
Even after eight years, it was nothing but expected of Rice to dish out another unrepentant serving of morose lyrics in "My Favourite Faded Fantasy," but in context clues alone, the argument of whether Rice's emotions are too overwrought or tinselly doesn't factor in this time. Little analysis is needed to figure out that the overarching theme in "My Favourite Faded Fantasy" is about Rice's relationship with former collaborator/lover Lisa Hannigan. Setting his expository emotions for the entire album with the opening title track, Rice wastes little time admitting that Hannigan was a love he can never find in anyone else; frankly, this track alone could sum it all up, but Rice opts to dig through the grave of his past relationship with a fine-tooth comb. He paints himself a scoundrel with a heart of gold while recounting his beginnings with Hannigan in "The Greatest Bastard," and goes from respectfully imploring her to reconsider getting back together in "I Don't Want to Change You" to nearly begging to be taken back in "Colour Me In," which is then followed by his message of feeling trapped in that relationship in "The Box." As his feelings shift around in numerous ways, with the only constant being his fixation on Hannigan, Rice seems to come to the epiphany in the final moments of the album that getting back together wouldn't restore everything back to normalcy, where the last line in "Long Long Way" echoes "'cause love is tough/when enough is not enough."
Overall Impression — 8
With an eight-year hiatus, Rice's return to his solo work likely would have been feasible had the resulting album just been a simple return-to-form to brush the cobwebs off. But to see Rice muster the ambition to make some true and successful efforts to advance the style of "My Favourite Faded Fantasy" from his previous works is refreshing and admirable. Perhaps the extensive amount of years was necessary to create it- whether due to getting the sonic elements just right, or channeling those years of bad experiences into sincere music - but "My Favourite Faded Fantasy" is exactly the album needed to respond to "9" and the many people that decried Rice for being a disingenuous one-trick pony.