It’s telling that the follow-up to Damien Rice’s brilliant, Shortlist Music Prize-winning O begins with a piano line and singer Lisa Hannigan’s voice. Both were used to dazzling effect throughout O to complement Rice’s quivering tenor and bristling acoustic guitar. Here, Hannigan’s voice also serves as comforting assurance that 9 probably won’t stray too far from the elements that made many fall in love with Rice’s delicate, bruised music in the first place, but, by placing them front and center, things are immediately mixed up—an indication that the album isn’t simply going to be O Version 2.0.
The first few tracks of the album echo the heartbreak of O’s crumbling relationship: “The Animals Were Gone” finds Rice poignantly surveying an empty house after his lover has moved out, while “Elephant” is a lyrical and musical sequel to “The Blower’s Daughter” (the closest Rice has gotten to a “hit”). “What’s the point of this song?” Rice sings after declaring, “Cause I’m lately horny!” It’s a question I, too, found myself asking—that is, until the song exploded into the kind of electric frenzy that was only hinted at on O, where rage was expressed in tiny, unexpected bursts on songs like “Cheers Darlin’” and “I Remember.” Rice’s angst rises more readily to the surface this time, which should please those who find Rice’s work too precious.
9’s middle stretch—including “Me, My Yoke, & I,” which mixes the perverse and the sacred like only a good Irish Catholic boy could—steers away from Rice’s more usual wounded-bird posturing. At times, the album seems designed to break Rice to a wider U.S. audience, but then, in a twist that’s reminiscent of Ani DiFranco’s “Untouchable Face,” the chorus of “Rootless Tree,” the album’s most immediately accessible and seemingly radio-friendly track, reveals a hitch: “Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you! And all we’ve been through!” There are still enough swelling, string-laden climaxes, crisscrossing vocal lines, and cascading symphonies of voices to keep fans of O happy (“Accidental Babies” is a bona fide tearjerker), but the album is significantly less unified. At the very least, 9 is enough of a departure to prove that Rice can rock as well as he can lull—and still tug heartstrings.