Review: Damien Dempsey, Seize the Day
Let me get this out of the way up front – I think Damien Dempsey is great. Not just good, not just brilliant. Great. Singing the praises of his album Live at the Olympia was the motivation for starting this blog and I still think it’s flat out, hands down, the best live album I’ve ever heard. The interplay between Dempsey and an enormous loving audience on that album is incandescent. I’ve also heard him play in a tiny venue before an audience of maybe 10 people and I was enthralled. I’m a fan and have virtually no ability to objectively evaluate Seize the Day. Be forewarned.
Dempsey’s first album, They Don’t Teach This Shit in School, was very much the work of a young and not quite ready for prime time musician. So much more the surprise, then, when his second album, Seize the Day, was released three years later. His song writing has fully matured, he is in absolute control of his material, and he sings and plays with a conviction that is riveting. Dempsey comes from working class Dublin and he has a profound and deeply felt sense of outrage at the injustices suffered by the underprivileged. In many of his songs he condemns this injustice with forceful, powerful and often poetic lyrics. On “Celtic Tiger” he excoriates the greed that has accompanied Ireland’s recent economic renaissance and has left so many of the the working class or rural Irish behind. On “Ghosts of Overdoses” he starkly illuminates the devastation wrought by drugs among the urban poor. The song includes the couplet “And the ghosts of overdoses / Replaced the ghosts of tuberculosis” which Dempsey delivers like a dagger to the heart and which is as succinct a description of the plight of the urban poor at the beginning and end of the 20th century as you are likely to find anywhere. Seize the Day is filled with moments like this as are all of Dempsey’s albums to date.
In combination with social injustice, Dempsey also has a profound sense of the ways living in a world where people expect the worst of you can drive you down to defeat. Album opener “Negative Vibes” is a moving song about a person striving to maintain equilibrium in a demeaning world. Seize the Day also includes the studio version of the rousing “It’s All Good” which receives an astonishing rendition on Live at the Olympia.
Dempsey is markedly influenced by traditional Irish protest music but he is also very stongly influenced by rock, hip hop, and, to a lesser extent, electronic music. It’s a heady and powerful mix that in Dempsey’s hands comes out as a unique and compelling form of music.
Damo, as he is known at home, is one of Ireland’s most popular musicians and has won numerous Irish music awards. One source of his popularity is that his lyrics make natural use of the history and slang of his homeland and he makes no attempt to sing with the neutral accent usually adopted by Irish singers in an effort to appeal to UK or US audiences. Listeners unfamiliar with Irish history or contemporary Irish vernacular may find some lyrics confusing but the CD booklet contains a helpful glossary.
Seize the Day is a terrific album that is strongly recommended for people who enjoy powerful music, exceptionally fine songwriting, and an uncompromising rejection of social injustice in all its forms. You will fall in love with many of these songs and will then be blown away even more when you hear them performed Live at the Olympia.
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