“How else do you honour and thank an artist?
But with the art itself.”
That’s a bold statement from David Balfe aka For Those I Love that accompanies the self titled debut album from the Irish wordsmith. It goes without saying Balfe’s proclamation is backed up with this deeply personal record of pure beauty.
There are five things I look out for when hearing an album for the first time. Qualities that help me decide if this is an album for me or not. It’s not all about the actual music but the other elements too that resonate and make a lasting impression. Personally I think we may be hard pushed to discover an album to better this one in 2021.
Honesty. This is an honest record comprising resoluteness against the backdrop of intensely personal ordeals and anguish. A no holds barred snapshot telling it like it is through spoken word and euphoric dance beats. The frankness and directness in David Balfe’s delivery might be uncomfortable to some, it’s clearly painful to Balfe too, but without the integrity and sincerity this record wouldn’t be anywhere near as powerful and hard hitting as it is.
Openness. Baring your heart and soul takes some doing. Originally planned as a limited run of twenty five copies for close friends of Balfe coming to terms with the loss of their best mate Paul Curran it became apparent that the open nature of the songs and lyrics was having a positive effect on others dealing with their own grief. Causing a stir in the industry it felt logical, if not a little bit strange by Balfe’s own admission, to share to a wider audience. Why not? Paul had touched the hearts of many and this ode to the talented artist is an incredible piece of work that will stand the test of time and ensure he will never be forgotten.
Passion. There’s an abundance of passion in this record. Strong feelings and emotions shine through the dark times and places visited in this album. Feelings of anger, despair and despondency counteracted with euphoria, elation and exhilaration. Growing up in the Northside of Dublin in working class Coolock it would be impossible not to be true to yourself. Balfe’s passion is clear to see. An underdog discriminated against purely from a geographical sense yet his determination and strength instilling a passion to make great art as gut-wrenching as this is. It’s a two fingers up to those who didn’t give him and his peers an opportunity to shine and his creativity has helped create a change and movement. It has ignited others and will hopefully create a positive environment not just locally but on a global scale too.
Energy. There’s no disputing the strength and vitality of these nine songs. An organic naturally flowing record, as raw as it may be, sustained both physically and mentally by the content. It’s melancholic yet cathartic, easing the emotional strain and burden by sharing with others and giving people the energy to carry on and keep the light alive. Balfe’s authenticity is like a beacon of light guiding us through the darkest and most treacherous of times.
Commitment. David Balfe had been working alongside Paul Curran prior to his sudden and sad loss. They had previously worked together on various projects under different guises but most notably as Burnt Out. A band who had so much to offer and their short lived existence had highlighted their potential and how seminal they really were. Now with such a massive void in his life Balfe committed to writing and recording even more. His focus and drive unquestioned and by the time he was ready to record the album he had seventy six songs available as a result of the fruits of his labours. Some written before Paul’s departure, others after. Chopping down the final cut to nine songs, his attention to detail and willingness to make a record he and his friends and family can be immensely proud of has driven him on as the personal responsibility to do it all justice has resulted in a fitting tribute.
So with those five traits ticking all the boxes the ingredients are fused together and the art is born. Using old recordings, samples, WhatsApp messages, electronica, funky beats, hip hop and gritty spoken word complete with dulcet tones the end result is an album laced with sentimentality and wistfulness. Sorrow and grief versus comfort and hope giving us a rollercoaster of emotions and an exhilarating ride from opening track I Have a Love right through the heart of it and to the finish and Leave Me Not Love.
I Have a Love opens with eerie keys. A song that caught the eyes and ears of those further afield than Dublin when previously performed live on Later... with Jools Holland. The piano melody and sonic layers mixed with a heart thumping beat that ebbs and flows provide comfort in the rhythm. It’s a song by the lionhearted for the broken hearted. Balfe roars “I love you beyond life” and you believe it. He despairingly reaches out with his “I have a love, and it never fades” defiance. His Irish brogue booms over a celestial soundtrack as old conversations captured on mobile phones give it extra emotional burden. The soundtrack to the lives of Balfe and his contemporaries it’s hard hitting and devastating but essential listening. A song for the people, by the people. The rest of the record follows the same path.
You Stayed / To Live takes a nostalgic trip down memory lane. The autobiographical commentary spanning from 2008 - 2016 covering a multitude of sins and social ills. Fire is a common theme in the song. The fire in your belly and in your soul but everything burns out in the end right? “Nothing is real and you’re not here” yearns Balfe, full of remorse.
“Answer my call make these flames dance for me” cites the man labelled “the poet of grief” before bellowing through the pain “I have a love full of flames that rage.” It’s powerful stuff. The attention to detail in all the songs highlighting tales of yesteryear, unwavering as if it was only yesterday he was living his best life with his best mate Paul.
At the beginning of To Have You there are sirens wailing in the background and past conversations saved in the libraries of mobile phones are played out. There’s a sense of the sun rising on another day but this isn’t a new dawning. As the song builds and builds the despair and anger come to the fore once more. Balfe is on the front foot attacking the flawed system that doesn’t offer people a positive way out and that leaves the weak behind. “There’s been blood on our knees since we were teens” he screams in rage reminding us “there’s no world me and mine haven’t seen”. Writing his way out of trouble for as long as he can remember, he looks back on his journey from getting into scrapes, taking the right path or the wrong path, making music for want of a better life and health but never forgetting where you’re from or who you are. The emphasis on staying real and true to yourself even if the pain of it all is real too.
Top Scheme follows in the same vein. A song about dismissing as an inconvenience the susceptible in society. People on the scheme no more than a number and then a fatal statistic on a spreadsheet when it’s all too late. The rage and resentment spewing from Balfe’s mouth as he calls out the elite, the establishment. The division between the rich and healthy and the poor and sick nothing short of a disgrace even in this day and age. He doesn’t hold back and why should he? Through the platform he has he depicts suicide, addiction, the gentrification of his city and the working class getting downtrodden. These are emotive subjects not to be swept under the carpet. Amongst the words and stark reality is a frenetic pace to the song ensuring no let up in the message.
The Myth / I Don’t tackles grief, how it never really goes away and the so called coping mechanism of the demon drink. When your life is spiralling out of control and you’re on a one way ticket to oblivion yet there’s nothing you can do about it. Numbing the pain is easy but once the sedative wears off the sorrow, the pain and the despair are still there. Stuck in a moment you can’t get out of. The seriousness of the situation etched in the powerful words. “I only feel good when I’m drunk” escalating to “flaking out on friends” or “getting drunk in bed instead”. Withdrawing further from your friends and family as the post traumatic stress takes hold. Gripping you tighter until the anxiety and stress of it all gets you at breaking point, at the abyss. The music reflects this.
David Balfe has talked in interviews about the surreal nature of strangers reaching out to him and also the pang of fear when his phone goes off and wondering if it’s more bad news or not. It got to the point where he would not read messages other than those from Paul that he’d saved on his phone. Though he found this comforting he also found it upsetting too. The heartache and agony like a double edged sword. I Don’t is the part of the grieving process at which Balfe tells us of his wish not to be loved, understood or safe as all he feels is nothing.
The Shape of You feels like a rebirth and reformation. Writing songs again as a way of therapy it’s almost a spiritual awakening. The song has love at the forefront and heartfelt words are the weapon of Balfe’s choice aiding the recovery and healing the scars and the pain. Using a couplet from the Smokey Robinson and The Miracles Song ‘The Tracks Of My Tears’ there’s extra emotion added to the song. It’s an upbeat song of hope and healing and driving forwards, onwards and upwards. It’s about changing attitude for the better. Grasping it, owning it, dealing with it and taking back control of your life. He learnt that from Paul.
Birthday / The Pain starts with the football chants of supporters of League of Ireland team Shelbourne before a melodic hook takes over the song. Balfe raps his way through the tale documenting the aftermath of a brutal murder and the discovery of a dumped body at the side of the road. All this happened at the tender age of six and as he continues the commentary he documents the unrealistic expectation of having to deal with it though it’s obvious he’s never really got over it. The broad landscape of themes continue accompanied by a grief stricken vocal against the backdrop of Balearic dance beats offering solace and euphoria rolled into one. A dance floor thriller, it’s a killer. Brutal but beautiful.
You Live / No One Like You reflects on a past life and good times. The outpouring of grief and sentiment headlining what Paul was all about. A literary genius, a poet, a lover, a friend, a good soul and so much more. You can never take away the memories and Balfe reminds us, and himself, that Curran’s memory lives on forever and that there really was no one quote like Paul. A beautiful eulogy and citation against a backdrop of beats and love, his spirit lives on. The catharsis is a celebration.
Reaching the climax of the album Balfe goes full circle with Leave Me Not Love. The “I have a love and it never fades” hymn returning and reiterating the point that there’s nothing stronger than the unbreakable bond of love, even if it isn’t enough sometimes. He tells us of fears of “losing the memory of your face” yet stumbling upon an old MySpace page and reigniting his consciousness as his band of brothers and sisters preserve the memory. A close unit of friends that have nursed Balfe back to health they are there for each other with the glue providing the bond that keeps them all together. “I have a love and it’s full of pain” are the extraordinary poet’s last words reminding us that the healing process is never entirely exhausted as exhausting as it is.
With this album For Those I Love has covered a multitude of emotions and unfathomable experiences which many can only imagine. Balfe’s words and wisdom paint the pictures and reach out to people at most in their hour of need. Some are tortured souls themselves. Listeners will find solace in this masterpiece as it sends a positive message about love and friendship and highlights the need for empathy in this messed up world.
This is a deeply personal album bravely shared with the world and people may ask how he has managed to do that.
As David Balfe puts it himself “How else do you honour and thank an artist? But with the art itself.”