The phrase “less is more” used to be a fairly important one in music, but with the never ending march of technological progress making the recoding of music ever easier, this tenant can get a little lost. Its replacement: more is more. More sweeping layers of overlapping instrumentals, more echo-y backing vocals, more cowbell.
This makes it all the more refreshing when an artist comes along who plainly understands that sometimes, less really is more after all.
‘Blasphemy’, the debut album from Dublin singer-songwriter Alan Doyle, is a subtle, quiet piece of work which sidesteps grandeur and excess for a more measured, careful and thought-provoking collection of songs.
Doyle plays all the instruments himself but, in keeping with his minimalist aesthetics, doesn’t employ any technological trickery. There are few moments where there is more than a single guitar lilting its way through a track. Doyle’s music is sparse in the extreme, so acoustic that at times there is no music accompanying the vocals at all (Tower Fall contains no music whatsoever, bar Doyle’s smoky, velvety voice).
This confident acceptance of silence between beats is a powerful statement of intent. Doyle is a musician with enough confidence to realise that it’s actually okay to leave a pause for the listener to gather their thoughts.
And it’s good thing too, because there is plenty to ponder across the ten tracks of ‘Blasphemy’. From the delicate opening notes of Brother, Doyle’s gift for a striking turn of phrase is evident. The wistful, folky poem of love and loss is peppered with lines like “my brother was a killer/ and he was a poet too/ he’d hurt you with a bullet/ but his words left fatal wounds.”
Doyle’s music is populated by killers, poets, broken hearted lovers and disenchanted starlets, all tied together with the grace of a natural storyteller with a gift for vivid imagery. The world of the songs is one in which “the cards you draw are wild, as are the written words you pray” (Time Passes By).
One caveat: at times the listener may require the patience of Vladimir and Estragon in order to get through ‘Blasphemy’ in a single sitting. Tracks like A Better World plod along with mournful solemnity of a funeral dirge, in the end fading away to almost nothing. It’s as if there isn’t even a musical note that can express the emotion, as if the listener needs to be left in the silence of their own heads for a beat to ponder on what has just passed.
This slow pace (coupled with an excessive song length in places) means that ‘Blasphemy’ can all be a bit much to take on board in a single listen. There are few major moments of brilliance, but so many small, subtle ones that they can all too easily escape notice on the first or second pass.
This is an album to take home and brood over, to sit listening to by candle light on a lonely winter night until the music finally starts to revel itself piece by piece. Because you don’t have to be John Cage or Paul Simon to appreciate the sound of silence.