After intermittently gigging, touring and even apparently ‘scuba diving in the brain’ (yes that is genuinely what he said) during an 8 year hiatus, our teary eyed versifier has returned to tug at our heart strings once more. The mournful, melancholic tones remain as prevalent as ever, but in ‘My Favourite Faded Fantasy’ Rice does not have the talents of Lisa Hannigan at his disposal. So just how successful has he been in his efforts to rekindle his commercial career?
I am a self-confessed fan of his work; however Rice rarely steers from the path of delicate, wistful groans, contrasted with whales of agony. The opener, the title track of this album, does seem to follow Rice’s general vocal pattern. However the use of rather interesting and odd ambient noise adds an alternative edge to this particular work. The piece builds and builds to a rather rocky crescendo and is a generally decent opener.
Indeed we see Rice make even greater use of a plethora of gifted musicians on this album, perhaps in an effort to fill the void Hannigan has left. And to be fair he does it very well. In first half of the album and in particular ‘It Takes a Lot To Know a Man’, Rice uses a whole array of instruments to add texture and depth to his sound more so than on either ‘O’ or ‘9’. There is heavy use of strings intertwined with unconventional percussive elements, it is not typical Rice. This then turns to a slightly stage-style piece, with layers of vocals and whispers over some sort of minor based pattern. We then hear drums, and then other instruments build in, until there is sudden, unexpected drop. The piece fades to ambient noise and background sounds, leaving a gentle piano which the proceeds to enter into a beautiful band interlude. At near enough 10 minutes this song rather is experimental and it is nice to see an artist pushing his musical boundaries. I should add at this point that the overall production of the album is nigh-on faultless, as one would expect with a Rick Rubin produced album, a man who has worked with everyone from Adele, to Run DMC, to Slipknot.
There are two tracks that really stand out on this album; ‘The Greatest Bastard’ and ‘I Don’t Want to Change You’. I must confess at this point that I already had heard these tracks prior to this review. Having already been impressed by a rough, fan recording from a relatively recent gig, the fully produced version of ‘The Greatest Bastard’ was a true delight. It is a piece that one could write off as rather typical of Rice. But I do not think this a negative feature. Indeed it reminded me of why got into him in the first place. There is a simplicity at the outset; essentially a man and his guitar, where beautiful melodies driven initially by softly spoken words, building to delicate falsetto juxtaposed with a desperate, strained voice create an emotional journey, where you can feel the pain that Rice himself clearly exudes. He wears his heart on his sleeve. The Layers build, strings and so forth, until eventually a full band comes to the fore; the woodwind section in particular is a perfect addition. This song then seemingly drifts into ‘I Don’t Want To Change You’, the lead single for album. I already had this song on my iPod and naturally I am quite the fan of it. Like the ‘The Greatest Bastard’, it is more typical of your old rice. One could all it safe but it works. Again the melody of the chorus in particular is breath taking.
Despite the quality of these said two tracks, some of the lyrics do have me in a mild state of hysterics. In particular Rice’s assertion in ‘The Greatest Bastard’ that he helped ‘you’ (‘you’ being a lady friend I assume) ‘open out your wings, your legs and many other things’. This is a rather typical example of Rice’s main fault; he is at times lyrically clumsy. For example at the age of 26, Rice claimed that ‘life taught him to die’ in his universally acclaimed hit ‘Cannonball’, I think most would agree this is a bit dramatic and over the top. Nonetheless, this does not distract from the overall quality of his work. Indeed the incredible, uplifting melodies he can create often override this and there is no doubting in my mind that he means every word he says; his lyrics are, for want of a better word, real.
At this point the album loses some of its energy. The second half of album is very different to first, the guitar is far more prominent and the music is generally less layered. ’Colour me In’ in particular struck me as a rather standard track, it has a slight album filler vibe. Perhaps this is due to its chilled and stripped back feel which is in contrast to rest of album up until this point. Nonetheless, for some reason, it failed to draw me in like previous two tracks. The album seems to continue with a more cut back approach until ‘Trusty and True’, the penultimate track of the album. Here the use of female vocals adds another dimension to Rice’s work. And although it is only a subtle fleeting section of the overall album, one cannot help but wonder how different this album would have been had Hannigan still been a part of his band.
You see Rice isn’t reinventing the wheel here. And credit to him he has not simply followed the musical trends of the hour; he is sticking to his folk driven roots. There are some excellent moments in this album, but these are unfortunately moments rather than a collective compilation of brilliance. It is a bit hit and miss, all of Rice’s albums to date seem to be. There is some good experimentation and despite my initial reservations, the album doesn’t really miss Hannigan, although as I pointed out earlier, it would be interesting to see how different it could have been had she still been around. I do feel that at times the album loses its energy and loses its way to a degree. However, the main thing I notice is that Rice, at his core, is still a desperately sad figure. One gets the sense in his love centred lyrical focus, that he has never truly moved on from his heartbreak of eight years passed. This is I guess what makes him such a good musician. Nevertheless, this is a relatively successful return from obscurity from Rice and although it isn’t a classic, it is a good album which I would encourage all to listen to.