Irish singer/songwriter Paddy Dennehy’s music makes for the gospel, but plays for the festival crowd on his debut album, ‘Little Light’.
Stream: ‘Little Light’ – Paddy Dennehy
There’s a confusion arising from session after session listening to Paddy Dennehy’s debut record, Little Light: does he or does he not believe?
By all accounts, the record employs a destitute image of faith and weaves an iron-spun thread through each song common to the struggling Catholic, ex- or otherwise; “I never did have much faith,” the Irishman broods, evoking solitude, desolation and Bruce Springsteen-in-a-farmhouse. His lyrics reference beds of nails, calls from the gutter, prayers from the pew, the “good” book and its “every stinking page stitched within.”
At points he is ashamed he doesn’t believe, at others he is ashamed he might not believe enough. To understand Dennehy’s lyrics is to understand the complex nature of a person’s relationship with a seemingly absent God. A challenging prospect, both for the singer-songwriter to detail and the listener to bask. A devotional is a hefty ask and the evidence against enjoying this record is easy to find.
In terms of music, he is no Bruce Springsteen, his music more closely resembles Van Morrison and Bob Dylan than Leonard Cohen. Thought was given to resemblances with early John Cale (no), Rufus Wainwright (sometimes) and Rory Gallagher (God almighty, I wish). Little Light places Dennehy’s starting blocks at “Hallelujah” rather than “Famous Blue Raincoat.”
Ultimately, however, Dennehy sings for every folk festival put on this green earth from now until he sputters out his last “One Good Reason.” Lumineers fans should find a comfy home in Dennehy’s discography. Edward Sharpe fans might find themselves responding to Dennehy’s calls. Part of me also would recommend to anyone who listens to Marc Cohn. But I don’t know anyone who listens to Marc Cohn anymore. (Honest question: does any one under age 40 listen to Marc Cohn?)
In terms of production, most cuts witness this increase in volume around the halfway point. It becomes a bid in restraining the emotional state of the listener at a chorus-level for two minutes and then quickly descending over the last thirty seconds of song. And this makes everything from mixing to composition feel predictable. “Snow Song,” “Someone Else” and “One Good Reason” largely avoid this pitfall, which probably contributes to their repeatability. “Little Light,” “Strange Wings” and “Abednego” overcome it. Cuts “St. Peter’s Replacement,” “Painting of a New Country” and “Feed the Full” are duplicates. The latter in particular is a heavy-handed bid for festival setpiece; “St. Peter’s Replacement” loses the plot entirely in its pompous, incomprehensible chorus. By the end of the record, listeners will be shouted out.
Even “Abednego” sees Dennehy a little ragged. I have yet to understand what exactly he is singing although invariably it has to be some desolate, slow-burning romanticism… oh fuck it is.
His piano melodies are sneaky good but they don’t elicit as much emotional response as the flares in both voice and strings. The secondary element of his music is thus caught in a no-man’s land. Dennehy’s strongest showcases at the keys occur during the introductions and bridges of “Snow Song” and “One Good Reason.” And even still, the violins manages to top his sparse, poetic play.
There’s just no detail as vivid as his voice ticking on each word “But you know I don’t like to fuss / Lonely is as lonely does,” nor a piano bar as reckoning as the violin section on “One Good Reason.”
Little Light features top notch work when minimizing the requisite instrument list. Sometimes a piano, some violins and a brooding piano man are all one needs. Otherwise, the record struggles to maintain neutrality in the sound wars. A fine prospect in the case of “Abednego’s” chorus rush, but it leaves little in terms of extended denouements; even the slow songs ensure routine emotional climaxes linked with a flooding of the soundboard.
Gospel-folk has always been a tough sell; Dylan spent an entire decade just trying to figure out how to sell it. The problem I have with this record is the incongruity between the album’s folk pretensions and its gospel practices; intimating a personal reflection and then employing a choir to arrive at the destination. When it’s done well (“Strange Wings”) the result is elegant, beautiful. When it’s all well and done (“Hard Times”), it is but a procession. Next song.
And yet, despite these issues with the program, still this righteous vessel for Dennehy’s voice rings full.
As it were, there’s more trial and reward in the cuts pursuing one of the Bible’s principal commandments: To love. There’s more release in the devotional “Abednego,” than the overblown “Hard Times,” more pain in the falsetto of “Strange Wings” than the chorus of “St. Peter’s Replacement.”
“If you could see this thing in my chest / it would have such strange wings,” Dennehy sings. He falters slightly between the last two words, yet it plays perfectly, a split-second moment of fallibility contrasted against this omnipotent force, the target of his ire.
Within that moment, more is done for faith than in any lyric in any gospel record ever. In that moment, I see the little light.
Stream: ‘Little Light’ – Paddy Dennehy
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