Evoking the change of seasons to portray the passage of time and evolution of self is a familiar songwriting mechanism, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done in a way that’s fresh. Over two sketches presented as Nealo in conversation, the Dublin rapper explains how the title of his debut album brings back memories of the final day of his brief life in Vancouver, when he peered from the balcony of his digs to see the blades of a red tree had blown away overnight. It was a moment of natural beauty that at a transitional time of his life felt particularly poignant.
These tracks serve as the fulcrum of the album. This is a work about a generation born into recession, that came of age during recession, and, as they exit their youth, are again staring into the cold, dead eyes of recession. It’s about the pull of the immigrant ship and what those who came home returned to.
Under the Weather (Old Obituaries) is just 80 seconds long and still Nealo (Neal Keating) finds time to decry the Irish healthcare system, housing market and perilous wealth inequality. It’s tough to bottle the frustration many Irish people in their mid-30s feel within the narrow margins of rap songs. Nealo isn’t afraid to give it a shot.
As a rapper, this former hardcore music artist’s pint-of-stout voice punctuates the messages with force. Yet Nealo leans on a close set of collaborators – including Uly, Fiachra Kinder and Adam Garrett, who operate as the group Innrspace – to eschew conventional rap beats for a velvet-draped portrait of lounge jazz and soul.
Though many of the tracks are short and skittish, there are some box-office songs. The silky Let Your Dreams Collect Dust Until You’re Desperate features verses from singer and long-time ally Molly Sterling, plus an excellent taste pick in Nuxsense rapper Jehnova, whose looping flow offers a perfect counterpoint to Nealo’s brawn. And over meditative piano keys on closer You Stole My Soul Like a 9 to 5, Nealo takes us all the way back to childhood, shuffling through his life saga, and where the odyssey has brought him.
There are flaws should you search for them. Moving into a double-time flow, as Nealo does on the sometimes corny Angel on My Shoulder, can see the MCslide off beat. And the record is slight at 10 tracks, a number of which are short interludes.
But Nealo wins by tapping into the disillusionment he shares with so many peers. This is not posturing but rather hard-lived reality. It can’t be faked. In the presence of Nealo, indignation has rarely sounded so sweet.