David Keenan: A Beginner’s Guide to Bravery review – An unbreakable stretch of ambition

Dundalk singer-songwriter’s debut album is pointer to individualist sensibilities

A Beginner’s Guide to Bravery
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Artist: David Keenan
Genre: Singer / Songwriter
Label: Rubyworks

As if further testimony were needed, Dundalk singer-songwriter David Keenan’s debut album is a pointer to his individualist sensibilities. A Beginner’s Guide to Bravery developed over the space of a week last year with spontaneous recording sessions in the Dublin Mountains.

The intention, says Keenan, was to “retain all the rawness and vulnerability, madness and unfiltered truths that make me who I am. A collaboration between chaos and calm in a world where the same laws do not apply. It gifted me healing and hope and a sense of renewal.”

There is all of the above intertwined with a naiveté that is a recognised and inevitable constituent part of a debut album. There is also an unbreakable stretch of ambition – not many debuts clock in at close to a full hour.

There is, then, from the off, a series of markers for the listener via songs that comfortably end past the three-minute mark and songs that take the scenic route past seven and eight minutes. It is, frankly, an exercise in dynamics and purpose by Keenan in how to bottle those strikes of lightning that can materialise from the ether during his live shows.


This is, of course, the primary difficulty here: there are far too many examples of the differences between the live experience and the recorded work, and it’s borderline impossible for the latter to replicate the former. What Keenan has achieved, however, is probably the best kind of balance anyone in his position can: a suite of songs that capture slivers of just how special his gigs are.

The music styles across the album veer from contemporary, skewed folk familiar to Jeff Buckley and Waterboys aficionados (James Dean, Unholy Ghosts) to full-blown extemporisations that bring to mind the very best of a quite specific Celtic-leaning Van Morrison (Love in a Snug, Origin of the World, Subliminal Dublinia).

Lyrically, Keenan almost falls over himself to fit in as many as possible. The crucial word here, though, is “almost”, because however he does it the prose-poetry prolixity works. Each song expresses a vivid and characterful story.

From a piano in a decaying old man’s pub “manned by a drunkard who is dripping with poetry, sitting stupefied, nailed to the stool” (Unholy Ghosts) to a street where “chimneys of steam emanate from the gutter” (Evidence of Living), Keenan revisits a past that he invests with marked attention to detail.

"A new phase will now unfold," is a bold claim on his website. On the unambiguous evidence contained here, you had best believe it.

Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in popular culture