The quality of his first two albums more than earned David Keenan the right to be a little more experimental on his third LP, Crude. Keenan came fast out of the blocks in early 2020 with a beautifully produced debut, A Beginner’s Guide To Bravery. What Then? Followed in 2021, with the production pared back a little and the songwriting pushed further. On Crude Keenan goes further still and releases an album of primarily acoustic tracks.
Where many singer-songwriters start acoustic and build up the production, Keenan’s reverse approach suggests a freedom many artists would be envious of and, crucially, a real conviction in his own songwriting. Of the album, he says, “The approach was to be raw and unfiltered, avoiding the obvious. This feels like the most free and focused example of my being on record to date and a necessary creative puke where my lyrics could lead the way.”
As on previous work, the lyrics tackle everything from religion to societal issues and mental health. At times it’s fairly abstract and almost stream of consciousness, with maybe a nod to the styles of Jack Kerouac or Tom Waits. Some will listen and want to deep dive into the lyrics; others will be less inclined to. Keenan manages to strike a balance that will suit both kinds of listener. The lyrics most definitely “lead the way” on Crude, but never to the detriment of the songs as a whole.
On "Miracles", Keenan is direct, singing, “Loneliness is part of living, I can run from it no more.” Elsewhere, God takes on the appearance of a magpie as Keenan channels something between a seanchaí and a poet, with a solitary drone the only instrumentation. Later, on the bluesy stomp "Back To The Pavement", he vents frustration at Ireland’s housing crisis.
The raw and unfiltered approach is cemented through tracks like "Waiting Room" and "Don’t Speak ill of the Dead." On his previous albums, these might have been developed into more produced tracks, like "Peter O’Toole’s Drinking Stories" or "Love In A Snug", but here the stripped-back guitar and vocal is maintained; the songs aren’t left lacking. Plucked guitar strings give melody to the waiting room’s ticking clock while layered vocals and a change of pace towards the end of "Don’t Speak ill of the Dead" are unexpected shifts in tone - avoiding the obvious, to use the artist’s own phrasing.
Every track could easily be imagined as part of a play or musical in which Keenan is the starring protagonist. "Andy Wilson" and "Ears are Prickd" showcase this perfectly. The former, a tribute to a busker from Cork who uses a bit of cardboard to strum his guitar, features Junior Brother on drums. As the song progresses drums and guitar pick up at varying paces, matching and overtaking each other like duelling banjos. It’s short and sweet, but a welcome glimpse of chaos and the energy created by two musicians in a room together. Ears Are Prickd touches on the characters’ mental health, darkly juxtaposing the lyrics with an almost playful, lilting guitar melody.
Junior Brother pops up again on "Raving Towards Byzantium", and his sharp, distinctive vocal contrasts perfectly with the smoother depth of Keenan’s to create one of Crude’s many highlights. Collaborating with Junior Brother was a masterstroke, resulting in two of the album’s standout tracks.
Keenan is at his acerbic best in "National Gallery Pop", a damning critique of the music industry as he and likely many of his contemporaries see it. The second verse deserves a mention: Wired to the stars on some energy drink, you tell me how to live my life and how to fix the human kitchen sink we call a world; well, I forgive you for being so tactless and unknowingly absurd. How many likes do you have? How many likes do I have? How many likes do you have? What a beautiful currency; we're so clever young, and free.
From intimately mic’d vocals to guitar strings sounding like they’re being plucked inches from your ear and his constantly developing songwriting, Crude takes the listener closer to Keenan than we’ve been allowed before. If there’s a criticism to be found, it’s that the album is perhaps lacking a showpiece track, like "Evidence of Living", "Subliminal Dublinia", "Philomena", or "Sentimental Dole".
However, Keenan is an artist who is constantly moving and evolving; he’s already written those songs. Instead, there’s a rawness to the album, which his previous work doesn’t always have, but there’s no less warmth or sincerity, and again Keenan asserts himself as one of the country’s finest songwriting talents.