Damien Dempsey : Union30.11.18 : Sony Music
The Guardian, heralding the release of Damien Dempsey's fourth album To Hell or Barbados (2007), marked him out as "one of Ireland's greatest singer-songwriters"; a decade after that plaudit his work is still deeply set in his home country, but his importance extends far beyond its borders. Crucially he has maintained his trademark lyrical truth-telling whilst still developing musically.
In this context Union offers, in some part at least, a timely retrospective of Damien Dempsey's career and then confirmation of his enduring qualities; it has been created by drawing together his finest existing collaborative work and adding animated new recordings.
The album has immediate impact, opening majestically with Singing Bird, the voice of one of Dempsey's heroes Finbar Furey joining him in a traditional song about a rousing speech by Liverpool-born Irish socialist and trade unionist, James Larkin. Singing Bird is followed by the uplifting flight of Soulsun, the title track from Dempsey's last album, with guest vocals and harmonies by John Grant - a tone sustained with a rapturous Apple of My Eye, featuring female indie/folk trio Wildwood Kin.
From then on it is impossible to tease specific highlights from Union's flow, but three key tracks can serve to illustrate the stylistic range and themes it expresses.
First, the bass-heavy, pressing reggae of A Child Is An Open Book has been rewritten from Born Without Hate (from the Almighty Love album), with Dempsey's vocals now framing a stunning, excoriating rap by the cultural polymath Kate Tempest.
Then, at the heart of the fourteen song set, is The Keepers Of The Flame, a duet with Cavan folksinger Lisa O'Neill. This has a sparer arrangement than A Child ..., relying mainly on keyboard & guitar, before a final drummed lead out. Deftly underpinned, Dempsey and O'Neill's voices interweave in a heartfelt and genuinely moving celebration of the role of the much reviled travelling community in keeping Irish culture alive, carrying music, 'old stories and dreams' with them from place to place.
At a contrast to both of these, near the end of the record, is the infectious soul-pop of Big Big Love. This song features Irish singer songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Imelda May - rightly described by Dempsey as, "a stunning singer, and can truly connect with her inner soul when she sings and awake the listener's soul". If nothing else, as well as the magic of May's voice, this song showcases Damien's maturity and versatility as a performer.
The Antipodean reggae of It's Important (with Dan Sultan), the plaintive air of Gaelic Ireland (feat. Pauline Scanlon), the sonic surf of You're Like The Water (Mick Stafford - Aka. Maverick Sabre), the blunt political sketch of Celtic Tiger (Sinéad O'Connor), the rebel balladry of Kevin Barry (Seamus Begley) and the dazzling, intelligent Human (with Dublin-born poet/hip hop artist Paul Alwright) complete the tracklist, before the 'deluxe' version of Union closes with Massai, and a beautiful cover of The Pogues' A Rainy Night in Soho, previously found on Dempsey's The Rocky Road - a rueful love song looking back through life to the start of a relationship, a fitting close to a glorious album.
For all this praise, it is on stage where Damien Dempsey finds his most (however humble) imperious self. His shows have the intensity of communion and matching mood of celebratory joy that you'd otherwise only find on a football terrace. Yet, as a studio record, Union does still successfully articulate the root of this connection and emotional impact.
Pervaded by unforced honesty, spirit and humanity, compilation or not, Union is a cohesive album that fills your heart with hope. However well produced, and whatever styles it incorporates, Union is in essence a set of sublime street-folk songs; music for the many, not for the few.
DAMIEN DEMPSEY with WILDWOOD KIN I Apple of My Eye