Irish soul is a notoriously elusive quality. Van Morrison has it, at least when he still cares. Sinéad O’Connor has it. Bono, for all his other undeniably great musical attributes, does not. Twenty-nine-year-old Dublin native Damien Dempsey has it, and his barely contained passion and grit lift the songs on his second album, Seize the Day, from good into frequently sublime territory.
Dempsey has been called the Irish Bob Dylan, and while that comparison overshoots the mark, it’s not wholly inaccurate. Like early Dylan, Dempsey is a folk singer who cannot be contained by the genre’s boundaries, and his pointed observations of contemporary Irish life reveal a fine eye for detail and a searing social conscience. He’s not above invoking the patriotic memory of Brendan Behan (“Jar Song”) or singing the praises of his Gaelic ancestors (“Great Gaels of Ireland”), but he’s even better at exposing the underbelly of the social ills plaguing his native land—the heroin abuse now ravaging Dublin’s inner city (“Ghosts of Overdoses”), and the devastating effects of the greed that fueled Ireland’s 1990s economic boom (“Celtic Tiger,” which also features a wondrous contrapuntal vocal from O’Connor).
There are a few minor problems—a dodgy Jamaican patois on a couple songs that doesn’t mesh well with the Uilleann pipes and fiddles, a full-bore vocal style that could benefit from nuance and subtlety, the occasional spot of lazy writing (“Seize the day / ‘Cause you don’t want no regrets when you look back / Seize the day / So at least you’ll know you gave this life a crack,” which makes me want to give his Irish head a thwack). But Damien Dempsey, possessed of a magnificent, soulful voice, has enormous talent, and Seize the Day hints at many great albums to come.