Irish songwriter Damien Rice is the closest thing that acoustic-wielding adult alternative will get to a wild card. His stunning debut, O, was a critical and commercial success with the help of tear-jerkers like “Volcano” and “The Blower’s Daughter,” and its 2006 follow-up 9—a lush, nuanced take on Rice’s biting songs—was panned critically, though unfairly if you’re asking this reviewer. While O presented a clear vision of Rice and longtime collaborator Lisa Hannigan as artists, 9 pushed it forward—sometimes in uglier ways. Rice sang about love, yeah. But there was also crushing infidelity on “9 Crimes,” life-long commitments bound by sex on “Accidental Babies,” even the uncertainty of all of the above on “Coconut Skins.”
Beyond the surface of his easy-rolling acoustic numbers, Rice has always presented a grittier take on gland-driven relationships, often slipped in tongue-in-cheek one-liners or easy-enough metaphors. Maybe wine-driven tales of the depths of love aren’t a new thing, but when you’ve got a pure voice and aim for theatrics like Rice, they’re still deeply affecting. Shortly after 9’s touring cycle, little was heard from Rice. And for years, I relied on the one-off radio play of “9 Crimes” or “Volcano” to suck me back into his small (but hearty) catalog.
Now, a mere eight years after 9, Rice is following up. The offering is an eight-song set titled My Favourite Faded Fantasy, the product of a near-decade away from music. In the interim he parted ways with Hannigan, joined with mega-producer Rick Rubin, found collaborators in Marketa Irglova and Alex Somers, and moved to Iceland. Get ready for lots of “reclusive artist” language during this press cycle.
As the title track explains nicely, My Favourite Faded Fantasy is a step toward the studio-enriched beauty of 9. Led by winding guitars, the track’s slow-churning six minutes guide us through fragile pianos, satisfying string arrangements and reversed guitars. While it’d be unfair to discount Rice’s sparse lyrics, My Favourite Faded Fantasy leans heavily on arrangements to deal an emotional blow—even early gut-punchers like “It Takes a Lot to Know a Man” and “The Greatest Bastard.” It’s a good look for Rice. These are rich songs, meant to be savored and taken in with repeated listens.
But more than anything, Rice’s latest work seems to be the story of moving on. Cautiously optimistic mini-tales like “Colour Me In,” “The Box” and “My Favourite Faded Fantasy” share what does seem like eight years of hard thinking on the subject. And fortunately (or not) for long-term fans, his conflicts in love seem to remain fully intact. See: Tracks one through eight. And while eight years could’ve brought about a jarring change, Rice has returned with eight satisfying, hearty tracks—albeit, nothing too far off his beaten path.