It is fitting that among the first lines of the first track on A Beginner’s Guide To Bravery David Keenan references Samuel Beckett. The young man from Dundalk has produced a stunning debut album which bends and blurs the lines between music and great Irish writing.
Every song could be a short story or play, featuring characters and plotlines with depth and sincerity. Keenan’s command of language and ability to carve a picture into the mind’s eye of the listener is used to great effect.
Whether it’s James Dean “looking for the quiet life, working for Irish rail,” or Love In A Snug’s old pub with the “clicking of boot heels on bar stools” and a “three-bar heater gasping for air”, Keenan transports in a way many other writers simply cannot. He draws you in, sometimes with a husky whisper in the song’s opening bars, like an auld fella in a pub passing on his hard-won wisdom to whoever happens to have sat beside him that night.
His fascination with Ireland, particularly of the past, is evident throughout. References to religion are common and, appropriately perhaps, often twisted. Getting “off your head on Altar Wine” wouldn’t (usually) be the intention of the drinker. Meanwhile in Good Old Days Keenan rips a nostalgic lense off early 20th century Ireland with nods to the glimmer man, Ireland’s second world war “emergency” and people being raised on bread and butter in factory houses. Those may have been his country’s formative years but they were hard times.
The layering of instrumentation and careful production of songs is masterful and far beyond what many artists could achieve in a first album. Songs are bare when they need to be and ornate when necessary, and so all the more effective. Some of the album’s strongest tracks (James Dean, Eastern Nights and recent single Tin Pan Alley) feature Keenan and either a solo guitar or piano. In these, the drama is all in his lyrics and delivery, with the simplicity of a guitar with reverb and light tremolo or piano providing the backing.
Elsewhere though, string arrangements, electric guitars and other instrumentation are used to excellent effect. Fiddle and banjo lines merge in Unholy Ghosts and The Healing to create an almost modern-trad style sound reminiscent of Beoga or Horslips, while the syncopated spiky verse of The Healing wouldn’t feel out of place on a Boomtown Rats track. It’s Keenan’s sheer personality that in every song individually and across the album fuses styles that might otherwise clash. Not mentioned so far are the album’s closing two tracks, Evidence of Living and Subliminal Dublinia. They deserve particular attention.
Evidence of Living is musically phenomenal. The opening piano and vocal run is almost reminiscent of Fairytale of New York, beautifully simple and instantly enthralling. Keenan’s lyrical storytelling and vocal delivery is again gripping. The song builds gently as Keenan shifts through vocal registers then explodes in triumph with percussion, string arrangements and vocal harmonies. You realise you’ve been holding your breath, tense and on edge until the drums kick in and the song resolves beautifully before fading. It’s a masterpiece worthy of ending the album. But Keenan isn’t to be outdone. Even by himself.
Subliminal Dublinia somehow raises the bar further and tackles Dublin’s homeless crisis head-on. Using the city’s old Norse name, and perhaps pointedly the name of a tourist attraction, his scene is on a street where a homeless person is asked, “Jesus Chris, is that you bedding down for the night, with your knees tucked to your chin?” before he switches his address to the passerby demanding, “would you take one look at him, the eyes that draw you in, take one look at her until you see yourself in her.” The shift in focus is subtly done but immensely powerful.
As earlier, Keenan dismantles the nostalgia and romance of Ireland and exposes a reality many choose not to see. Having expertly put us into the shoes of someone who is homeless and turned the spotlight back on ourselves, Keenan then turns to a solution, and in that there’s hope.
“Give me a Dublinia where no-one dies of the cold, while others reap what they stole. Isn’t that a start?” he asks. Keenan is confessional, compassionate, angry and inspiring all at the same time, calling for a revolution of the mind, of the soul and of the heart in the city he loves. The song’s battle cry, “occupy the city with original ideas,” is repeated over and again as the music builds to a mournful crescendo. More voices join Keenan in his mini-revolution demanding action, repeating a call with increasing urgency and vigour. A call he clearly feels isn’t being heard.
Subliminal Dublinia is little short of a masterpiece, musically, lyrically and emotionally. It demands to be heard and heeded, perfectly in keeping with the album it closes.