- 10 Jan 20
"It stabbed me in the chest..."
It’s only about two and a half years ago that Hot Press had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the basement of the Thomas House to see yet another young lad with an acoustic guitar, the support act to The Strypes. David Keenan already had it – songs, presence, whatever ‘it’ is – and, though he made us wait, he’s delivered the album to prove it.
It had a protracted birth, he took a few runs at it, but only because he wanted to get it right. That he didn’t rush it out to capitalise on building word of mouth and press coverage speaks of the artist at work. “It’ll be ready when it’s ready,” he told me, more than once.
“A Beginner’s Guide begins…” he whispers to start ‘James Dean’, an acoustic recounting of a dream where the actor, the embodiment of youth, takes a step out of the spotlight into the world of the beautiful ordinary, the world that Keenan eulogises and mythologises throughout. The band kick in on ‘Unholy Ghosts’ with a floor-tom thump and a haon, do, tri, the fiddle soars and swoops behind the chorus that joyously calls out to “the ones who seem destined to get left behind” and we’ve all met – or been – the drunkard dripping with poetry manning the wooden piano on its last legs. The music celebrates and dances a jig for life.
‘Altar Wine’ goes dark, dripping with obsession, sexual and artistic, ending with screams over Graham Hopkins’ military tattoos, before the short story of ‘Love In A Snug’ - a Flann/Donleavy/Behan barroom odyssey, complete with pool cues, three-bar heaters and bowsies - wrings a wry smile from anyone who’s ever known the joy of day drinking, hiding from the mundane, listening for the secrets of the world which seem only a whisper away. The gentle waltz the music plays guides the memory along, only slightly unsure of its feet, ready at the drop of a grin to burst into song, the song of the chorus, dancing on the cobbles, recalling Van Morrison at his most gloriously untethered.
He played an early version of ‘Tin Pan Alley’ that night back in the Thomas House, and it retains its simplicity here, a piano ballad, a song celebrating songs, the timelessness of art as all else fades, and he gave out ‘Good Old Days’ that night too, a rag-bag of memories both celebrating and distancing himself with a “God bless” from times past, the emergency, and the glimmerman’s beady eyes.
‘The Healing’ offers of a hand to the fallen and falling, take the sacrament of music, get healed, the war is nearly done, the music breaking down as the song goes on and the wails rise, saying what can’t be said with words. ‘Origin Of The World’ borrows some John Martyn One World atmospherics for a love song, “wish me luck, I’m in trouble again, I’m in love” he freely confesses, and we’ve all gladly danced down that road, aware yet oblivious. ‘Eastern Nights’ shares DNA with Jeff Buckley’s best moments, a road song, a run-in with a burlesque dancer, and the doomed, drunken professions of love made in the rush and the flush when everything seems possible, fleeting moments destined to fade in the morning's harsh and unforgiving glare.
“Evidence Of Living’ is a call to arms, a cri de cœur aimed at his own tribe, delivered over a stately piano, imploring us all to live lives blessed and guided by love and art. When the band crash in for the swirling coda, it’s a melisma of both memory and hope, a celebration of being. ‘Subliminal Dublinia’ closes the record out with a summating manifesto: “occupy the city with original ideas” Keenan takes swipes at Dublinia, his own potential Arcadia is breaking his heart, but it’s not just the city around you, wherever that might be, this a “revolution of the self, of the heart”. Take the salvation of art, let the music wash over you, “isn’t that a start?”
That’s his last word, his last line, the end of his beginning is just his start.
Keenan waited until the songs were right. He waited until the band formed around him who could translate his ideas – people like Hopkins and producer/guitarist Gavin Glass, who have never been better. He learned from the patrons who took him under their wings and waited until he had work fit to stand beside and even surpass them. He waited, he made us wait, and he was right to do so. He promised much, he has delivered more. Reach and grasp are equal. The first great record of the year.
A Beginner's Guide to Bravery is out now. A full review of the album, as well as an extensive interview with David Keenan, will feature in the next issue of Hot Press.