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For Those I Love
Johny Lamb , April 30th, 2021 07:38

The eponymous debut from Dublin producer/songwriter David Balfe is full of savage joy, finds Johny Lamb

This eponymous album is the debut full-length effort from Dublin producer/songwriter David Balfe. A project that exists seemingly to articulate both personal grief and bereavement and broader strokes of the struggles of working-class life in Dublin. This is an exciting time for Irish artists, and they find they have much to write about, social, economic and political contexts being what they are. From the gorgeous beat-driven pop of Gemma Dunleavy to the sharp, often political wit of Kneecap, Irish popular music is finding an unfiltered favour outside of its immediate home, with no compromise in language, accent, reference or idiom. For Those I Love fairly bulldozes its way down this path and is all the more exciting for its inward-looking approach.

Musically this album draws from various electronic styles, with moments of flat-out house, smart disco, Euro trends and a more vintage synth pop, though it carries with it a brazen hardness throughout as fierce bass, industrial noises, and clever synth hooks come at you with relentless energy. ‘You Stayed / To Live’ plays these cards strongly. Even in its more wistful moments, like ‘To Have You’ or ‘The Shape of You’, this driving, headlong rush of noise rarely diminishes. The whole album is a forceful experience that makes for pretty breathless listening. Balfe leaves just enough space to relieve us from exhaustion – but only just. It’s well measured to this end. He seems to know exactly how far he can push his audience.

For me, he’s at his best when things are dark. The back-to-back run of ‘Top Scheme’ and ‘The Myth / I Don’t’ are the highlight for me. He has gathered himself and unleashed his full anger and frustration here and it’s sounded with a barely-contained backing of dark synths and descending bass tones. Erratic drums unnerving us as he weaves his words through and over the noise. In the second of these, he brushes against the sounds of grime, but with a goth tinge and an unsettling atonality. It’s a fantastic sound. Like a Wendy Carlos sci-fi soundtrack reimagined through the most contemporary brutality. A sawtooth driven nightmare that segues into a strangely smooth R&B outro.

But we should not neglect the voice here either. I often struggle with spoken word, the earnest urgency of a trope-filled mode of delivery can set my teeth on edge – even when the writing is great. But here the performances have little trace of the expected prosody of the style. It’s more like Whipping Boy or something of that ilk. Introspective, contained but aggressive. There is a simmering menace to his delivery that marries well with his narratives of drunken nights, burning sofas, and unfortunate run-ins with the Garda. And the pure pointless, broken struggle of it all. He speaks from his life with not just authenticity, but with authority. An authority of experience. It goes a long way in the now rankly gentrified arena of popular music. When he says ‘Stabbed to death and left on bricks’ it’s grimly believable. “This is no dramatics” he reminds us, chillingly on the paradoxically catchy ‘Birthday / The Pain’.

This catchiness is worth remembering. I’m writing a lot here of darkness, of violence, of struggle, and indeed these are his themes, but this record is full of deft brass lines, clever little melodies and memorable refrains. Because at the root of everything For Those I Love writes great pop songs. It’s a pertinent album as young Irish people find themselves without a hope of affordable housing, compromised by the UK’s hubris in Brexit (the Shankill Road is literally on fire as I write this), swimming in the debris of the fleeting prosperity of the Celtic Tiger, they are finding a voice and a release in art and music. All the way back before Swift, Irish writers have displayed a talent for brutal satire, knackered realism and a darkly funny pessimism. Balfe has this skill in spades, and it’s a savage joy to hear.