Having first emerged on the music scene in 2015, David Keenan’s debut album A Beginner’s Guide to Bravery explores existentialism, the muse and the changing face of Ireland. Following on from a string of single releases and EP collections, the singer/songwriter from Dundalk draws inspiration from the likes of Dylan and Cohen, setting tales to music and tapping into a distinct Celtic consciousness that sets him apart from all others in his field.
“I had a dream that James Dean was alive and well today”, Keenan sings on the album’s first track, “looking for the quiet life, working for Irish Rail”. From the get go, we are confronted with a world – Keenan’s world – where figures and ideas present themselves in unconventional ways. People act strangely, expectations are skewed and places and people are cultivated in a way which turns what we thought we knew about them on their head. It paves the way for a musical journey that upends the usual approach to song, and surprises you at every turn.
Unholy Ghosts comes next. The song celebrates Keenan’s fascination with “those that seem destined to get left behind”; misfits and outcasts unassuming in manner and appearance, but who might just be the ones to reveal the true meaning of life to you over a pint. An ode to the lost souls, the song’s powerful arrangement gains momentum until it reaches an almighty crescendo, making Unholy Ghosts a track full of spirit and wildness. The final lyric “strip me bare, let me wash in the rain” is countered by David himself as he remarks, “or something freeing like that, anyway”. There is a thin line between comedy and tragedy in Keenan’s lyrics; a profundity met with perspective and wit. In the words of Yeats, ‘being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy’. This is a sentiment that could well be applied to Keenan’s whole album.
Where the album largely benefits from a bigger band and a more developed sound, Altar Wine is the only song which I feel is better stripped back. On the album, it’s very damning, with screeches of violins and howlish screams detracting from the considered, slow feel it has on the Strip Me Bare EP. It is impressive nevertheless that Keenan experiments with sound in the way that he does. With Keenan, there seem to be no comfort zones.
In Origin of the World, Eastern Nights and Good Old Days, the transition from religious Ireland to literary Ireland and from the Ireland of old to the Ireland of new is seamless and beguiling. The way he takes us on a tour of his native Dundalk and Dublin especially – from Barrack Street to Harcourt Street and down Bachelor’s Walk – conveys Ireland’s influence across decades.
Evidence of Living and Subliminal Dublinia, the tracks that bring the album to a close, reinforce the record’s conflicted feelings for Ireland’s capital, perhaps exacerbated by the homeless and housing crisis’ which have plagued the city for years, as well as a feeling that Dublin is pandering more and more to tourists than Dubliners themselves. “Dublin I love you, but you’re breaking my heart” in Subliminal Dublinia is reminiscent of poet Stephen James Smith’s Dublin You Are which states ‘My city… I love you, most of the time’. The concern that Dublin is being stripped of its authenticity and character is heard in the lyrics, “occupy the city with original ideas”; an appeal for a more progressive society and a call not only for action, but for reflection. The lyrics are now part of a mural located in Dublin’s Temple Bar, showing local artists’ support for the song’s entreaty.
A Beginner’s Guide to Bravery constructs dream-like worlds featuring “a poor Samuel Beckett under a mother of pearl skies”, old men on barstools conversing with God and where Dublin exists both as a relic of the past and a signifier of the future. By combining story and song in a daring and somewhat outlandish way, Keenan recalibrates the Irish psyche, taking the risks necessary to produce such an eclectic and thought-provoking body of work. He is the olde-worlde thinker of a modern day Ireland, original and striking in both looks and style, and is one of the most exciting young talents to come on the music scene.
David Keenan is performing at King Tuts, Glasgow on Friday 6th March 2020.