Keenan demonstrates an insatiable thirst for imagery, adventure and knowledge in his exceptionally formidable lyricism.
Though firmly rooted in the way of the troubadours that span the generations between Buckleys Tim and Jeff, Irish singer-songwriter David Keenan is very much his own artist. On his debut LP A Beginner’s Guide to Bravery, opening track “James Dean” eschews Hollywood glamour and the romanticizing of figures who lived fast and died young, instead opting for a whimsical look at rural Irish life, reimagining the eponymous, ill-fated actor as being “Alive and well today/ Looking for the quiet life/ Working for Irish Rail.”
Keenan demonstrates an insatiable thirst for imagery, adventure and knowledge in his exceptionally formidable lyricism. He conjures the most vivid imagery with ease on “Love in a Snug” (“Can you hear the clicking of boot heels on bar stools/ And see the bald chalk-less tips of the pool cues/ And the three-bar heater that’s gasping for air?”). On “Origin of the World,” he sings of lost love (“I’ve emptied my skull of stale symbolism/ From my fingers I’ve scrubbed you like a nicotine stain”) while on “Good Old Days,” he contrasts nostalgia for a simpler time with the harsh reality of its hardship (“I heard an old one speak of the emergency/ Hiding beneath a baby in its pram”) before referencing T.S. Eliot on “Tin Pan Alley.”
Keenan toes the line between introspective and anthemic, pulling the listener close with a delicate croon before allowing his voice to take flight during a hook. But while his lyricism is cause for celebration, the music of A Beginner’s Guide to Bravery leaves a little more to be desired. Predictable chord progressions are masked by mournful strings, and the song arrangements do little to deviate from the typical pop song format. By the time we reach “Tin Pan Alley,” the sound of upright piano feels like a breath of fresh air considering the quartet of beat-combo-instrumented tracks prior. Meanwhile, the relentless acoustic guitar on “Origin of the World” feels invasive against the minimalist background ambiance.
The pace of the album never seems to accelerate past a brisk walk, either, a characteristic that even Keenan’s dramatic vocals cannot disguise. “Evidence of Living,” for all its deft imagery, plods along until its dying moments. “The Healing,” on the other hand, is a truly well-thought-out number with enough intricate twists and turns to reach the loftiness of Keenan’s written verse. Its urgent chorus of “Hold me/ I’m only a moment away” and inkling towards a communal, human world and emotion are its secret weapon. And while closer, “Subliminal Dublinia,” is as slow out of the gate as any other track on the album, it contains Keenan’s boldest statements and most stirring social and political rally for “a revolution of the mind and of the soul and of the heart.” Keenan imagines a world where “no one dies of the cold while others reap what they’ve sold.”
With a message that pure and resonant, to criticize the lack of originality or diversity of A Beginner’s Guide to Bravery feels like nit-picking. The album offers more than a fleeting glimpse into Keenan’s potential. While at times the vocals feel simpering, there is an earnest poeticism behind the words they deliver. With tales of star-crossed lovers, drunks and the alienated, the album reimagines a banal world in a progressive way. Keenan has a way of making the ordinary seem infinitely more interesting.