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

On June 21, 2016

by Ryan Reed


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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