Dermot Kennedy: Without Fear review – Deeply personal and high on emotion

Kennedy has proven himself as a vocalist but production on album feels too safe

Without Fear
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Artist: Dermot Kennedy
Genre: Pop
Label: Riggins - Interscope - Island

When you’re preparing to dive into cold water, you hold your breath as a defence mechanism. Turning on Dermot Kennedy’s debut album for a repeat listen, you find yourself doing the same because the emotionally-wrought delivery of each song requires total immersion from the second you hit play.

Opening song An Evening I Will Not Forget, a pained song that walks through the many stages of accepting that a relationship is over, sets the tone for the complexities that rage inside our protagonist's mind like a never-ending storm. Sensitive and strong-minded, Kennedy's heart weighs heavy and when he looks back on the experiences that helped shape him, there's a sense that he's older than his years. "You've been on a journey they can't see," he sings with downhearted nostalgia on All My Friends, "When dancing in ballrooms, you will lead. Promise you'll smile off a memory".

Finding his voice initially as a busker on the streets of Dublin and Boston, the 27-year-old from Rathcoole has been releasing music since 2015. With a little backing from Taylor Swift (in 2017, she included him on a Spotify playlist of her favourite songs, and this May, she described his music as poetic in an interview with Entertainment Weekly), the singer-songwriter's name is now a global one to watch.

With massive success already at home – his most recent single Outnumbered peaked at number two in the Irish charts – he is the latest in a long line of earnest and Irish male singer-songwriters to make it big at home and abroad. But rather than exploring the political in borrowed blues like Hozier or playing it safe with daytime radio hits like Gavin James, Kennedy is cut from a different cloth as he gets deeply personal with songs that run like a tortured inner monologue.

His rich voice goes from a raspy whisper to an almighty strained roar in one meticulously-shaped turn of phrase. Navigating the many difficulties of falling in and out of love, breaking up, making up and, ultimately, growing up, he can take a snippet of a memory or a conversation and add many layers to it.

Take this from Moments Passed: “And in my winter, she’ll be burning slow. Feels like December knows me well.” Using chopped vocals over looping synths and drum machines, it’s a big production that stands out on an album where the majority of songs follow the same formula of hushed beginnings to thundering and white-knuckled choruses.

The album’s title track finishes with a hint of hope. Well, as hopeful as Kennedy can get: “Now I really think you’re heaven sent, ‘Cause you’ve been forcin’ all these hollow hearts to feel again. Now I really think you’re heaven sent, ‘Cause there’s a beauty in being broken, I’ve been seein’ it”.

Wearing anguish on his sleeve and conveying a lifetime of emotional warfare in one note, he has proven himself as a lyricist and vocalist but the production on the album feels too safe. Produced by a team of British and Canadian hot shots, who have individually worked with the likes of Ed Sheeran, Ellie Goulding and Kendrick Lamar, the album would have benefited from some rich instrumental interludes that toy around with hip-hop beats or electronic waves, instead of sticking to the blueprint that has already served him so well. But, when you are riding high already, why mess around with a good thing?

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