Damien Dempsey: Union review – Darkness on the edge of Damo Town
Singer / Songwriter
Is there any other contemporary Irish solo singer who manages to distil as much identity and heritage into their work as Damien Dempsey? The ones who spring to mind are Iarla Ó Lionáird and Lisa O’Neill; the former operates in a different realm altogether, where tradition is infused with current methods, while the latter is as close to a much older era of folk as you can get.
Dempsey, however, has managed to stamp his boots over more than just tradition. He engages with pop, reggae, hip hop and spoken word, all of which inhabit a place that you’d really need to describe as Damo Town.
In plain black and white, Union is a cash-in, just-for-Christmas duets album. Most in this genre are awful – Barbra Streisand this, Rod Stewart that, Michael feckin’ Bublé everything else – yet they sell by the bucketload. Commercially, of course, there is some sense to them, but by and large they are as beige as the wallpaper in every room of a cheap hotel chain. In Damo Town, however, things are different, the colours more vivid, the language more meaningful.
From the outset, the northside Dubliner didn’t do the obvious. Released in 2000, his debut album, They Don’t Teach This Shit in School, divided the critics, which is a nice way of saying that the singer’s guttural delivery of his unaffected lyrics marked him out as one to either listen to or avoid.
Since then, Dempsey has done little to persaude disbelievers to park their opinions and join him on his crusade to highlight social ills. Although now more assured and rounded, his vocal delivery continues to define the descriptive use of the word “Marmite”, yet his pragmatic demeanour has attracted more than it has repelled.
Such a position comes home to roost throughout Union. Across 14 songs that are chosen from varying points in his career and given a sonic polish or boost, Dempsey’s default position is ramrod straight. Some songs directly highlight his love of traditional singing – The Keepers of the Flame (with Lisa O’Neill), Gaelic Ireland (with Pauline Scanlon), Singing Bird (with Finbar Furey) and Kevin Barry (with Seamus Begley). The latter, in particular, sees Dempsey in especially firm, balladic voice, with Begley in the background.
Other songs demonstrate a darkness on the edge of Damo Town, with often startling results. The strapping pair of Dempsey and John Grant taking on Soulsun (the title track of the former’s 2017 album) and its lyrics of triumph over adversity (“I never thought I’d feel this weak or rejected, but I just know it’s gonna pass”) is a joy from start to end. The reggae-tinged A Child Is an Open Book is another battle cry, with Kate Tempest’s words rippling out alongside Dempsey’s roar.
Tempest’s presence on the album offers another clue of where Dempsey’s head and heart are. This, as well as Celtic Tiger (a track from his 2003 album, Seize the Day, featuring Sinéad O’Connor), You’re Like the Water (with Maverick Sabre) and Human (with the Dublin rapper/spoken-word artist Paul Alwright) form an impressive intellectual through line that is much more established than it was back in the late 1990s.
Back then, when people sniggered at his broad Dublin accent, Dempsey had more gumption than most people had given him credit for. Now, not so much refined as evolved, he has taken that nerve and channelled it into a state of mind. Welcome to Damo Town – a population of one for all and all for one.