David Keenan Makes Massive Leap with ‘What Then?’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

It’s easy to fall under the spell of David Keenan. The Irish folksinger has a knack for hypnotic folk-jams that draw you in with their enchanting rhythms, which feel a perfect match for his brand of poetic lyricism. Like Damien O. on steroids, Keenan offers a deft blend of traditional sounds and modern approaches to craft a unique and intoxicating sound.

His latest album, What Then?, Keenan’s second full length, is an incredible step forward from last year’s A Beginner’s Guide to Bravery. Keenan has clearly spent his time honing his skills and, as a result, has stepped into bold new territory that demands to be heard.

Album opener “What Then Cried Jo Soap” immediately sets the tone. Filled with rich layers of sound, it serves as the gauntlet being thrown down by Keenan and establishes the promise of this record. Driven by a heavy and rhythmic backbeat, it’s Keenan comes off as something of a mad troubadour, spitting his poetry with an infectious intensity. “I’ve sown new seeds I wish to grow/Embrace the many gifts that life bestows upon me/I looked for love, she spoke to me/Said man is our true enemy” Keenan sings in his Irish brogue. This pattern of internal rhyme schemes and varying meters continues throughout What Then?, which creates an air that’s always interesting begs for multiple listens.

Lyrically, the album doesn’t stray far from the folk stable, dealing with love and loss and the human condition. But Keenan has a talent for phrasing that adds an intriguing weight to his words and themes. Take “Peter O’Toole’s Drinking Stories,” the album’s fifth track. Keenan sings, “In the past when I knew less than I know now, which isn’t much/I slept inside Peter O’Toole’s drinking stories/I wept on the unmade bed of existential crises.”  Like so many of Keenan’s lyrics, these show a commitment to the craft of poetry as much as his music shows a commitment to the craft of folk.

That isn’t anything new, of course. Keenan doesn’t do much to change to folk formula in his work, but he does display a mastery of form that allows him to delve deep into the raw emotionalism that drives his work. This is the work of a burgeoning genius who is not interested in resting on his laurels. The leap between A Beginner’s Guide to Bravery and What Then? is so vast that it’s difficult not to be excited for whatever comes next. For now, however, we’ve got an album that commands attention as much as it commands your emotion. What more is there to ask for?

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