David Keenan’s debut album, A Beginner’s Guide To Bravery landed in January of 2020. It is a phenomenal record (check our review here). Keenan’s second album, What Then?, comes on the trail of that excellent debut, a concert film titled Alchemy & Prose, and three volumes of Isolation Tapes recorded during various stages of lockdown. He could have been forgiven for taking his foot off the pedal faced with a pandemic and the cancellation of gigs, but he’s been a busy man and on What Then? he pushes his boundaries further than before.
Keenan is an album artist. That’s not to say his singles are weak, but his work thrives in the big picture and seems to translate better as a whole than in isolation. A Beginner’s Guide To Bravery was a journey from start to finish and What Then? continues that trajectory, with a similar palette of folk-based instruments providing the stage and props for Keenan to deliver his one-man show.
The lyrical focus is more introspective and the album is darker in tone than his debut. Keenan says, “”What Then?” details my dealings with the human condition, an imagining and re-imagining of what was, what is and my place in it all.” Internal struggle and torment is a theme Keenan returns to frequently but there is some relief towards the end. What Then? begins with a sharp intake of breath and What Then Cried Jo Soap gets straight to the point with Keenan confessing, “As the alcohol took hold, the level of noise began to rise.” Bark builds to a chaotic finale with furious strumming and shrieking violins, typifying the first half of the album as being a little frantic.
Philomena is a tribute to his late grandmother in which Keenan regresses almost wishfully to a childhood simplicity and innocence through his lyrics: “Philomena tell me a story, sing me to sleep, I’ve been in the wars,” he sings, before the song crescendos on the repeated line, “We can feed the wee birds.” For all of the album’s lyrical poetry, this is one of Keenan’s most direct, powerful and relatable moments. The production around the song, building from distant drums and guitar to a furious intensity with dense percussion and strings, makes it one of the strongest on the album.
What Then? picks up more steam in its second half with the excellent contribution of Keenan’s namesake, the Scottish poet David Keenan, on The Grave of Johnny Filth. With Boarding House’s gently haunting piano melody, Keenan can practically be pictured sitting at a rickety upright piano in a haunting, dilapidated old building.
Keenan’s sense of drama and storytelling makes him one of Ireland’s most exciting songwriters. He has a unique ability over the course of an album to take the listener with him through an experience, without them even necessarily knowing they’re in there with him in the thick of it. If the beginning of What Then? represents torment, tension, struggle and chaos, it resolves a little in Me, Myself and Lunacy. It’s calm and almost uplifting; a positive engagement between a person and their own mental health perhaps.
Sentimental Dole revisits the idea of social justice Keenan masterfully critiqued on A Beginner’s Guide To Bravery, before Grogan’s Druid brings What Then? to a close, playing out on the raw recording of a conversation between Keenan and family or friends. The resolution started in Me, Myself and Lunacy seems more complete as one of the last things we hear is Keenan’s laugh ringing out and the link appears explicit as in the earlier track Keenan refers in the lyrics to a handheld Zoom recorder. It’s one of several points on the album where he inserts subtle lyrical references between songs, reinforcing the idea of him being an artist best appreciated through a bigger project.
To place David Keenan in a specific genre would be to do him a disservice; the inability to anchor him in a single style adds to his mystique. What Then? might lack the immediate accessibility that made A Beginner’s Guide To Bravery such an excellent album, but its eleven tracks are a clear indication that Keenan is an artist on an unstoppable rise. His poetic lyrics, first class story telling and natural charisma make What Then? a compelling listen. It’s an album that might take several spins to fully appreciate, but when it gets you you’ll stay got.