- 15 Oct 21
A Testament To Bravery
The mark of an artist worth their, or anyone else’s, salt is how they react to a bit of success. Everyone who has graduated past wearing nappies has had to deal with being ignored, but handling people paying attention is a different story. The safe and easy money would be in doing the same thing again, following up the relative success of 2020’s A Beginner’s Guide To Bravery with Part II. An Intermediate Guide, perhaps.
Keenan marked himself as different from the off. Songs and ideas were falling out of him, and he was constantly moving forward. He was talking about this record while he was supposed to be doing the press for the first one. As soon as he could, he stepped away from the personnel that helped him realise that opening chapter, and headed somewhere else.
Working with producer Jonathon Mooney, best known for his Morricone-does-Americana work with Other Lives and New York percussion/drummer man Aaron Steele, Keenan has stripped away a lot of his signature sound and built up emotive and sometimes noirish soundtracks for his mini movies. Synths and treatments mix with the acoustic guitar, coloured by the odd dobro, violin, piano and even a trombone on ‘Hopeful Dystopia’ with its beautiful line about the “butterfly phase”. It’s a beguiling stew.
Lyrically, Keenan continues to document the trip. The nearly-title track, ‘What Then Cried Jo Soap’ has our man asking himself the question we asked above, what then? He’s not going to be the artist-for-hire, “what can I do you for? Let me take your order.” This Joe Soap has taken off the braces and is doing his own thing, proving - to himself first, then the rest of us – that he has it in him. ‘Bark’ is a more angry song, although again, you might interpret the “bark like a little dog” line as something he’s determined not to do, and “you say one thing, I’ll do the other” from the upbeat ‘Beggar To Beggar’ is a gentle two fingers from the same place.
‘Philomena’ is a change of pace, a calling to home and family and to the spirit of Keenan’s grandmother. The excellent ‘Peter O’Toole’s Drinking Stories’ looks askance at living up to a legendary lush while ‘Sentimental Dole’, featuring his poet pal Stephen Murphy, takes shots at what he calls the bolloxology prevalent in today’s society. The artist explains why he had to keep something back for himself lest he lose it all in ‘Me, Myself And Lunacy’, stepping away from the “method Jekyll and Hyde” because it’s “hard to inspect whether your mind’s still fried or wrecked when your life’s become a public execution.” The record finishes back on that road home to the voice of his grandfather and to what’s important in the beautiful waltz of ‘Grogan’s Druid’.
WHAT THEN? answers its own question, with an uppercase roar. It’s a diary entry from an artist loath to stand still, anxious to take chances and reap the rewards of risk. It’s also a very good record.