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Damien Rice: From a Whisper to a Scream

Damien Rice traffics in intimate ballads that demand close attention.
Damien Rice traffics in intimate ballads that demand close attention.

The music of Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice demands close attention: Whether he's singing in an aching whisper or yelling amid strings and other pomp (often in the same song), he's a nuanced performer who isn't afraid to lay his feelings bare. His two immaculately produced albums, 2004's magnificent O and the new 9, sound plenty grandiose, but it's artistic rather than commercial ambition that seems to drive their dense and sometimes difficult songs.

On 9 in particular, Rice spends much of his time picking at the psychic wounds inflicted through infidelity and jealousy — hardly feel-good fare. But "Elephant" finds him carrying on in top form, in an epic ballad that showcases his considerable emotional and vocal range. The quiet-loud-quiet structure won't exactly shock Rice's fans, but it's hard to deny the song's visceral kick, in both its quietly unnerving moments and its overtly pummeling midsection.

"Well, this has got to die," he sings in the song's opening seconds, virtually unaccompanied for maximum impact. It takes six words for "Elephant" to establish itself as serious business, and as Rice works his way through vague references to broken promises and anguished loneliness, the track follows through on that early promise. It's not cheerful, but it functions as a textbook example of how to maximize a song's hair-raising drama, from the first second to the last.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)