Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice has always had a certain scruffy, raw fervor that sets him apart from the myriad soulful folk singers armed with acoustic guitars, and that’s never been more evident than in his follow-up to 2002’s O. Where his debut was a soft, sonically lovely and lyrically lush affair, 9, released in 2006, has a sort of burning desperation to it, thanks to Rice’s rangy vocals, the lyrical bloodlust, and his assistance from singer Lisa Hannigan (though unfortunately much less on this album), whose hushed voice provides a haunting weight to the unbridled passion of the material covered here.
9 launches out with “9 Crimes,” which is light-years apart from O’s standout cut, the light, sweeping “The Blower’s Daughter:” combining quiet trickles of piano and crescendoing strings with dueling vocals from Hannigan and Rice, this track is achingly gorgeous, and it’s a perfect set-up for the album’s vacillation between lovelorn reminiscences and raging jealousy.
“The Animals Were Gone” continues in the vein of almost painful intimacy with lines like “I love your depression and your double chin / I love almost everything you bring to this offering" and its refrain, “Waking up without you is like drinking from an empty cup.” It’s an unconventional love song, but the gauzy, string-laden backdrop gives the track a sense of dreaminess, and as always, Rice’s soaring, scraping vocals have a way of getting in under your skin and staying there.
But for me, the most indelible cut off of this disc is “Rootless Tree,” a blistering, surprisingly accessible lambast of an ex-girlfriend with the unforgettable chorus, “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you and all we’ve been through / I said leave it, leave it, leave it / It’s nothing to you,” all set to raw, electric instrumentation.
“Me, My Yoke, and I” is another slow-burner, combining distorted, black-edged vocals, scraping guitar riffs, and unrelenting drums that all make way for the obtuse, religious-centered lyrics and the almost manically delivered refrain, “I’m mad, I’m mad, I’m mad / Like a big dog, yeah.” It’s more than a little bit unhinged, but it’s this unrestrained intensity that makes Rice so endearing, and material like this is a nice step from his lovely but much less edgy debut.
More muted with its looping acoustic guitar lines and signature strings, “Dogs” is a sweetly spare ode to “The girl that does yoga” who “lives with an orange tree / Got a wolf to keep her warm / When he comes over, she gives, he gets without anything to see.”
Only the last couple of tracks are a little less engaging for their loss of energy: “Accidental Babies” is lyrically stunning but the stilted moodiness of the instrumentation is to exhausting for this song’s six-minute runtime; meanwhile, closer “Sleep Don’t Weep” drowns in its own melancholy, and after the first few minutes blurs out to a droning, single-note instrumental for the remaining fifteen.
At its best, 9 is seductive and almost uncomfortably familiar, and Rice’s voice, for its occasional straining, is nevertheless stunning in its frankness and passion. Still, the album does tend to dip towards navel-gazing towards the end, which is much more of a disappointment after seeing what kinds of songs Rice is capable of crafting.