By Helen Jerome
Thanks to Paul Weller’s production, the focused lyrics and the welcoming warmth of the instrumentation, Arrivals could be the record that breaks Declan O’Rourke into the Americana mainstream as a formidable singer-songwriter.
Like a plane circling and waiting to land, Irish singer-songwriter Declan O’Rourke’s new record has been delayed several times, but has it been worth the wait? It comes with great expectations - not just because he’s been releasing singles from it every couple of months, but also because he’s now produced by Paul Weller, famous for his own solo work and influential groups The Jam and The Style Council. With additional accompaniment from a fabulous string quartet, Arrivals makes for something rather ravishing for the ears that also nudges Americana into new territory.
There’s an almost intangible atmosphere that builds throughout the record. You can hear the influence Joni Mitchell – one of O’Rourke’s idols - on first single ‘The Harbour’, with its balance of longing and dreaming, as his acoustic guitar chimes under his warm, almost conversational vocals. ‘The Stars Over Kinvara’ captures the feeling of coming home; the cello echoing his voice. The title track has piano at the fore and is redolent of sessions in the noisy bars of Galway and Cork; an instant warmth again provided by the cello. Closing song ‘This Thing That We Share’ sees Weller providing piano accompaniment, as O’Rourke tackles the subject of mortality with his quiet, near whispered vocal hovering over gently brushed drums and twirling saxophone.
When O’Rourke addresses current affairs – presumably to the delight of Weller – there’s a real palpability to the urgency of his messages. Anyone who has seen the movies County Lines and Calm With Horses will recognise similar young characters in ‘Andy Sells Coke’, showing them caught up in a relentless global trade. Contrasting with the musically upbeat framing, the verdict in its lyrics is stark: “He’ll be dead in five years if he doesn’t change something.” ‘Convict Ways’ marks O’Rourke’s 2018 visit to Australia for the 150th anniversary of the last ever convict ship to land there, and tackles the idea of transportation of criminals through the wild waves, “burning to be free.” ‘Have You Not Heard The War Is Over’ is stripped right back to just him and his guitar – and it feels like he is talking directly to the listener, one to one, berating our hopelessness in the face of unceasing conflicts, just another scene for TV: “This is a modern protest song.” Perhaps his most focused song, however, is ‘Olympian’. For this is the true and frankly awe-inspiring story of Yusra Mardini, the teenage Syrian swimmer who fled for her life across the Mediterranean. Not only did she compete in the Rio Olympics in 2016, but she also became a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador; O’Rourke singing that “crowds are cheering, willing her through”.
Arrivals is a grower of an album. Thanks to Weller’s production, the focused lyrics and the warmth of the string section, it could be the one that breaks O’Rourke into the Americana mainstream as a formidable singer-songwriter.
Arrivals is out now via Warner Music UK