David Keenan – A Beginner’s Guide To Bravery
Rubyworks – 10 January 2019
Championed by Glen Hansard, Hozier and Gary Lightbody, hailing from Dundalk in County Louth, halfway between Dublin and Belfast, Keenan has been spoken of in terms of Van Morrison, Tim Buckley, and Samuel Beckett (although his musical epiphany was The La’s), his debut album proving him to be a distinctive new voice, literally and figuratively, his mythologies born from the streets and people of his hometown.
Beckett’s influence clear, along with a serving of James Joyce, it opens in startling style with the sparse James Dean, Keenan speaking, or more accurately, slurring the lyrics with their chorus of
I had a dream that James Dean was alive and well today
Looking for the quiet life, working for Irish rail
And in me father’s clothes with a bloody nose I sang “Isn’t it so sweet?”
There by the slot machine, there’s James Dean out cold beneath my feet
accompanied by electric guitar nerve endings.
Before you have time to fully absorb what you’ve heard, underpinned with a military drum beat and waltzing guitar melody, the storytelling moves on to Unholy Ghosts with its opening line “I was gifted a book by somebody who loved me/About a man who got even with God” as he lays out the subjects of his fascination with “Here’s to the fathers of the lost sons and the unholy ghosts/It’s the ones that seem destined to get left behind/Interest me the most”. Such as, for example, sat at “a wooden piano/On its last legs in a last chance saloon”, the “drunkard who is dripping with poetry” who offers him “my last correspondence with Christ”.
His thick, husky semi-spoken delivery reminiscent perhaps of Christy Moore, the heady delirium of Altar Wine introduces another character, a woman who confesses “There was once a man who loved me/He was older, he left a scar/And a book about an angel/Who made her way back home to God”, his “fucked up muse” for whom he’s writing another anthem for doomed youth (a Wilfred Owen reference although the song itself mentions Sassoon, alongside Areto, an Amazon from Greek mythology) on a sick bag “In the hopes that in the process/I might conjure up a few scenarios/Filled with old ghosts/Who wander round dressed in your clothes”.
Of the seven-minute quiet/loud ebb and flow of the slow waltzing Love In A Snug, the most Van-like of the numbers, the story came about from ending up, after weeks of binge drinking, in a local bar on Barrack Street and observing a conversation between a married couple with a novelist’s eye for detail (“see the bald chalkless tips of the pool cues and the three bar heater that is gasping for air”).
Wandering London’s streets in the rain spawned Tin Pan Alley, a piano ballad that treats on the transitory nature of fame (“I met a man there on the corner picking flowers by the roadside he said he was a household name during the last days of Rome”), its musing on ageing borrowing lines from TS Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
The past is there again on Good Old Days, slow clanging percussion accompanying stories from Barrack Street, told by his Alzheimer’s afflicted grandmother about the glimmer men (agents of the Irish energy companies who restricted the use of gas in the 1942 emergency), hiding coal in the baby’s pram, the men cycling in a line to the pork factory, escaping from poverty for a while in the picture houses. It’s not sentimental about nostalgia though, as he says “We won’t shed no tears for the good old days but for talk’s sake we can mourn them in a song”.
There’s times when his dramatic storytelling approach conjures thoughts of Alex Harvey, as on The Healing which moves from simply picked acoustic guitar to a fuller waltzing arrangement as he sets the noir narrative of “a bastion of youth in a world that’s ripped right open” with “A pigeon chested young man, a brother steps out of a tomb of toxicity and ruin, spent his money on cheap wine…The dogs on the street sing your praises the heat saps the sweat from your skin. The war is nearly done man. Are you ready for the Healing”.
There’s, at least initially, softness to be found on Origin of the World as, backed by violin, and referencing both the American social critic and essayist Christopher Hitchins (rhyming with contrition) and the myth of Luna and Lupa, he asks “Wish me luck I’m in trouble again, I’m in love with a woman friend” as it builds to a frenetic climax before romantic loss veins the spare, bluesy, rambling Eastern Nights as he recalls:
I watched you sleeping as evening turned to night, but in the morning you left me traveling to Cambodia…I heard through a friend of a friend you were dancing in a multicultural burlesque show. Here’s to you my love. Those eastern nights they’ll take some beating, though my drunken professions of love they didn’t stop you from leaving.
Etched on minimal piano, the penultimate track is Evidence of Living, the vocals largely buried in the mix as, conversing with an old ghost, he sketches dive bars and gutters where “the brilliant blasphemers are sitting and cursing us under the moon” looking for “any evidence of living left in this town” where every kid’s “dreams died in fifth class”.
It ends in epic form with the eight-minute junkyard chaos of Subliminal Dublinia, a ‘thoughts of home’ song that came to him in despair in a Hollywood hotel room and which most clearly carries the influence of Joyce’s The Dubliners in its evocations, ending as he screams out “Occupy the city with original Ideas. I still love you, isn’t that a start?”
Infused with the soul of the great Irish writers and such visionary boho barroom bards as Waits, Morrison, Burroughs or Bukowski, it’s surely unlike any other album you’ll hear this year, the breathtaking arrival of a luminous talent.
David Keenan is currently touring Ireland with UK & European dates planned for March 2020. Details here:
David Keenan: A Beginner’s Guide To Bravery was last modified: January 10th, 2020 by