When You Were Young: Damien Rice's 'O' And The Turmoil Of Teen Feelings

On June 21, 2016

by Ryan Reed

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When You Were Young aims to reclaim the music of our misremembered youths from the scratched mix-CDs underneath our car seats. Each edition will cover music the writer loved as a teenager before moving on to “cooler” music, whatever that means. This edition covers Damien Rice, and his album O. 

My reaction to transportive music is innate, primal: Goosebumps shiver down my arms; my jaw drops; my knees become cymbals, my hands drum sticks. But I rarely weep. One rare exception occurred at age 16, that awkward year of hormonal angst and new driver's licenses. It was a Friday night in my redneck Kentucky home town, and my friends had ditched me in a botched hang-out attempt. Single and bored, I cruised around the pathetic downtown in my decade-old Ford Contour, blasting a burned CD-R of Damien Rice's acclaimed 2002 indie-folk LP, O. My favorite track was "Cannonball," a warm blanket of heartbroken clichés and tumbling acoustic guitars. "There's still a little bit of your face I haven't kissed," the Irishman belted. And I melted, pulling over into a laundromat parking lot as the tears gushed.

As I listen to the track on YouTube 13 years later, I feel curiously blank – my teenage turmoil supplanted by quiet respect and mild irritation. I admire the musicianship: the descending, fingerpicked riff; how the vocal melody snakes around the chords. But Rice's quivering croon, which once consoled me, now comes across as cloying – like a method actor hamming it up for an Oscar nod. My weeping impulses are dulled. But why? Has the hard-knock world of music journalism crushed my emotional intelligence? Or is Rice's music designed to move the tear-prone youth a demographic I no longer fit?

At first, I pegged my soulless reaction to shifting tastes. These days, my weekend cruising is more likely soundtracked by Gentle Giant than Iron & Wine. If I attend a concert opened by a sensitive white dude with an acoustic guitar, I fight the urge to roll my eyes and duck out for a cigarette. (And I don't smoke.)

But wait – I'm not some smug prog-rock curmudgeon. One of my favorite albums of the decade thus far is Sufjan Stevens' stripped-down Carrie & Lowell, a song cycle so raw, the background air-conditioner hum is a signature part of the ambiance.

Given these facts, it's strange that O has lost its resonance. For most listeners, the music of our teenage years becomes a gateway to nostalgic yearning, a reminder of better times. In a 2014 Slate feature, University of California-Davis psychologist Petr Janata explained that our favorite songs get "consolidated into the especially emotional memories from our formative years." You know that cliché where a person sighs and says, "Oh, this song really takes me back?" That song is literally taking them back.

 


As I listen to O now, headphones plugged into my MacBook, I try to channel those feelings of my 16-year-old self, to absorb years-old catharsis through fresh ears. I'm transported by "Volcano," the most abstract and least tear-jerking track. "Don't hold yourself like that / You'll hurt your knees," Rice requests. Is his partner performing oral sex? Praying? The mystery reels me in, as he and vocalist Lisa Hannigan duet over a jazz-folk groove. Here, instead of the one-sided moaning of "Cannonball," there's a romantic counterpoint, a dialogue. (There's also musical counterpoint at the dizzying climax, as their voices dissolve into a dissonant jumble.)

Other select moments rise above the mopey-ness: the vocal octave jump at the end of "Delicate," the distorted crescendo of closer "Prague," the cuddly counter-rhythmic guitar patterns of "Cannonball." (In our butterflies-in-stomach days, my future wife and I often sang duets of that song in the workout area of her dorm, hoping no one would walk in to crank out some curls.) Still, too many O moments – the tedious "Blower's Daughter," the woozy orchestral balladeering of "Amie" – strike me as saccharine fodder designed for rom-com soundtracks.

I'm confident Rice wasn't a musical con artist questing to break onto Grey's Anatomy. I recognize the artistry of his music it just holds little utility for me anymore. O spoke to me at a time when I was lonely and confused, drifting by in a deadbeat town with no clue how to escape. Now that I'm more settled and self-assured living in an exciting city with a career, a wife, two dogs, and a house – his reveries of cannonballs and volcanoes don't resonate on the same level.

But that's OK. Because they could help another aimless 16-year-old, like they did for me at that age. And who knows? Life is unpredictable, and our experiences and emotions shape the music we crave. Even though I don't need O today, perhaps its delicate reveries will serve me tomorrow.

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