Following up 2002’s debut album ‘O’ was always going to be a tough prospect. Having toured the album and milked its wares for a variety of film soundtracks for what seems like an eternity it was I suppose about time the man they are calling “the most influential songwriter of his generation” (hmmm) to actually do something new.

The truth of the matter was his debut was actually very good, a combination of heartfelt songcraft, a measured emotional delivery where needed and a band that was first rate for the kind of music that he was delivering. Returning with his latest album ‘9’ I had high hopes of hearing something that would be equally inspiring.

It starts well, if only in the respect that Rice is playing the contrary bugger by not bothering to turn up on his opening song (9 Crimes) until halfway through. Still that’s no bad thing because up until that point the vocal duties are handled by Lisa Hannigan who has one of those voices that can make grown men cry. It’s a good start, Rice as ever in a mood that could at best be described as bleak but there’s nothing wrong with that if it’s done well.

There’s a slight flabbiness to the lyric of tracks like The Animals Were Gone, still things like this are mild discrepancies and all it means is that the songs take longer to get under your skin than they would normally (bear in mind I actually hated this album when I first listened to it). The arrangements however make up for any shortcomings that might be found in the lyrical department. Sparse acoustic arrangements for the most part overlaid with heart rending strings arrangements.

Songs like Elephant function almost like personal exorcisms for Rice, they come equipped with something akin to personal baggage. Almost to the point where they become almost uncomfortable listening. You wonder how the explosions of emotion captured in aspects of these performances could ever be recaptured again in a live performance (Rootless Tree being a prime example).

Things back off a little for tracks like Coconut Skins that sits astride a train yard acoustic rhythm and for me quickly becomes the most obvious choice for the next single on an album that doesn’t offer that many single opportunities. As the album draws to a close there are some more compassionate moments courtesy of Accidental Babies with its gentle piano borne accompaniment and Sleep Don’t Weep which once again gives Lisa Hannigan a more upfront role (she’s there throughout the album but her vocal seems less pronounced this time round).
For all the plaudits that this album will doubtless find its nest feathered with, its not as good as ‘O’. But saying that it still sets a high watermark for others in this genre to follow. Its an album that you need to live with for a while and if you’ve liked what Damien Rice has done so far then I don’t doubt that you should find most of the material on here to your liking.