On the cover of his last album, 'Almighty Love', Dublin singer/songwriter Damien Dempsey was depicted in the Irish Sea, wearing a wetsuit, arms stretched out to the sky, with the landmark Poolbeg Chimneys in the background. Damien is a keen outdoor swimmer. When working in London he likes to go for a dip in the ponds at Hampstead Heath. His new album, 'Soulsun', ends with the same theme: In 'Soft Rain' the singer watches as the sun travels the width of his country, "... traverses the broad majestic Shannon, creeps up the beautiful Burren, barren, across to the mystical islands of Aran, and sprinkles gold dust over the ever young Atlantic Ocean. I'm goin' in. Are ye comin'?"
Swimming is not the only subject we have encountered before in Damien's songs. His interest in Australian aboriginal culture and history returns with a song by L.J. Hill, 'Pretty Bird Tree', recorded here with frequent collaborator Pauline Scanlon, who also included this on her own recent album ('Gossamer').
And we go back to Dublin. Damien is from Donaghmede, on the city's North Side, and his first single, released back in 1997, was indeed called 'Dublin Town'. The aforementioned 'Soft Rain' is the masterpiece of this new album, and it starts out on the outskirts of the city before moving into town, as Damien does the verses in spoken word while a female voice sings a hypnotic melody. Damien looks at all the pretty big houses and wonders if their occupants are happy. The songs speeds up, he goes into pubs and observes new Dublin: "Different tribes, they are a feast for my eyes. Deep exotic languages, gutteral and ancient. The knowledge and the strength of these brand new Irish will temper our country, invigorate our community..." It is a positive message Damien has for us this time and it is heartening to hear.
The big issue that gets revisited on 'Soulsun' is mental health. Damien sang about depression long before this became fashionable and he has battled with it himself. The lyrics here focus on coping, on solutions, alternative ways of looking at life. The tone is uplifting, and this is visually represented by the bright cover image from Dublin graphic artist Maser.
'Soulsun' was recorded in London, with producer John Reynolds once again at the helm. They have gone for a less folky sound, more rock-based, with backing vocals, keyboards and some heavier electric guitar. It veers towards AOR and it took some time before I took to it (I was quite keen on the whistles and pipes of the past), but admittedly it works well with the slow, powerful ballads, of which there are quite a few.
The guests vocalists are all female, "mighty Celtic Warrior High Queens", as per the sleevenotes. This is not a description I would immediately associate with Dido, but I have to admit that the re-recording of 'Beside The Sea', which first appeared on Damien's debut album and on which she guests, is quite lovely. The Pauline Scanlon duet works well too, but the collaboration with Imelda May sounds better on paper than it pans out in reality. The song in question, 'Big Big Love', is a slow power ballad and my least favourite song on the album. Still, Imelda is very popular and it could turn out to be a grower and go down well live.
Live is where Damien is at his best. Even in years without recorded output (there have been considerable gaps) he is always a big live draw with a loyal following. His shows have been praised by a broad variety of peers, from Mary Black to Morrissey, from Sinéad O'Connor to Shane MacGowan. I can think of no other artist who would tour all the working class suburbs of Dublin and sell out theatres in each of them, but also support artists like Bob Dylan, U2 and Bruce Springsteen.
So which of the new batch of songs are the keepers, the songs that audiences will bellow along to alongside 'It's All Good' and 'Negative Vibes' ? I would definitely say 'Soft Rain', as well as the title track. Another highlight is 'Sam Jenkins', a story song about an English soldier who was sent to Ireland during the Famine, before being convicted and sent off to Australia. It is an excellent song, tailor-made for Christy Moore to cover. 'Sweet Gratitude' stands out too, a reggae song among the anthems, with singalong happy chorus.
'Soulsun' is a slight change a direction for Damien, a successful move to a full and heavier sound, yet not so drastic that it will alienate his fans. Thumbs up Damo, and welcome back!