I’ve spent a concerning amount of time thinking about the work of David Balfe, something my friends are all painfully aware of by now. This obsession with their creative world started almost by chance, with a listener of a podcast I occasionally edit shouting out his Jools Holland performance – sending me down this rabbit hole in the process. To say that Balfe’s performance struck me emotionally would be an understatement – the weeks following my initial exposure were spent obsessively trawling the internet for any sparse information, shouting at friends about it’s major importance, and counting the days down until the March 26th release date of ‘For Those I Love’. The project had initially been released in 2019 for the immediate friends and family of the musician and that fact nearly tortured me – I knew it was out there in the digital ether and finding the few remaining traces of it became my main coping mechanism as lockdown dragged on. ‘For Those I Love’ is a record that infinitely more interesting and talented writers have covered and because of that I’m going to be a bit more specific in my approach – you most likely know how cool this album is and because of that I want to focus in on what fuelled my initial obsession, what made these deeply personal tracks about friendship and loss so utterly poignant, and what prevented me from being understandable by non-Irish mutuals for the past while. Balfe’s music melted my brain in the best possible way, here’s a lame attempt to explain why.
up to eight of us pooling ten quid to make something great
‘For Those I Love’ is a record that can’t be divorced from its context, even if I wished otherwise. Balfe initially came to prominence with his membership of Burnt Out, a multimedia collective that perfectly captured the experience of post-recession youth with distorted guitar riffs and an utter honesty that gave their work disproportionate impact. Burnt Out only ever released two singles during their brief existence but both felt like some of the most refreshing music coming out of the country, with vocalist Paul Curran’s lyrics cutting deep in a way that’s hard to fully describe. One of the craziest things about the group was how effortless their work seemed – everything they released felt authentic, unapologetic, and complete from the get-go. Lyrics dealt with issues of poverty, mental health, and suicide through reflection, providing a blunt depiction of their experiences growing up in Coolock without any unease or loss of face.
Curran’s writing both inside and outside the band felt so powerful on account of how grounded it was – he was able to channel his experiences at the shite end of capitalism into work that celebrated his friends and community but also directed anger towards those in power. This attitude is best captured in ‘Four’, one of Curran’s spoken word pieces – “I don’t want a chip on me shoulder, I just want to grow older with the kids that I’ve grown with. But it seems the system we live in needs a victim […] and I don’t want any part of the system’s indifference”. The group worked towards a debut album, verging on becoming the voices of a generation as they worked together in Balfe’s garden shed in Donaghmede. Then Paul suddenly passed away, having taken his own life.
It’d be incorrect to frame ‘For Those I Love’ as being a record of grief, but that experience of loss fundamentally reshaped it. Balfe was already in the process of composing the seventy-six songs that got whittled down into the final release when Curran passed, but the purpose of the project shifted. What was initially a celebration of family and friends became something larger, attempting to capture the cycles of mourning, love, and self-destruction all too familiar amongst our youth. One of the most impressive things about this change in purpose is how gracefully the lines between the personal and universal were blurred – Balfe’s work manages to resonate on a societal level due to how utterly niche it is, painting in enough specific details until we see ourselves reflected.
It feels as if this intimacy is aided on some level by Balfe’s refusal to play along with the games of the corporate music industry – ‘For Those I Love’ was originally intended solely for those in his immediate circle and its eventual rerelease by September Recordings initially troubled the musician. He’s repeatedly stated that he doesn’t want to become a “professional musician” and there’s something that feels utterly genuine about that sentiment – ‘For Those I Love’ isn’t a project that fits neatly into RYM rating curves or radio shows, it’s instead one direct from the heart (and one important enough to warrant such blatant cliches).
Balfe’s ability to draw profound meaning from the hyper-specific arguably peaks with ‘Into A World That Doesn’t Understand it, Unless You’re From It’, a casual mixtape released last year consisting of live verses over old beats, unreleased tracks, and B-sides. I initially treated this mixtape as a glorified stopgap until March 26th and I regret that heavily – the informal setup of the tape provides the listener with a fascinating glimpse into Balfe’s creative process, something I appreciate a lot. The laid back banter between tracks, slightly janky mixes, and radio show vibes help create an atmosphere that’s simultaneously unpolished yet definitive – it feels like hearing a friend rehearse, and there’s something oddly powerful about that.
This sense of poignancy is furthered by Balfe’s description of the project – “[f]or years the car was my stage. Any new demos I had got played for me mates as we cruised around Dublin, always staying aware of the parts they were buzzing off most. Then Paul wrote Drive and immortalised those nights, turning them to works of art. But then he died and I drove Dublin City every night. I played our tunes loud. I held my friends as they cried. Grief can crumble any of us”. Balfe can evoke so much emotion due to his genuine nostalgia for the normal – we can all relate to his anecdotes of egging houses, bumping into destitute primary school friends, or sending sappy drunk texts and that’s why it hits me so hard. ‘For Those I Love’ feels like the ultimate piece of naïve art, being able to portray and evoke deep emotions ignored by the industry due to its outright refusal to conform to the corporate, middle-class world.
goodnight, fuck off, goodnight
One of the main things that struck me about For Those I Love’s powerful Other Voices performance were the failures of the Free State flashing behind Balfe as he performed ‘Top Scheme’. “In 2016, 27.3% of children in Ireland were at risk of poverty”. “Ireland’s richest 20% own 73% of the country’s wealth”. “In 2006, 92% of people with a household income of over €30,000 attended an arts event […] only 50% of people with a household income of less than €30,000 did so”. These facts were in no way new to me (or anyone in this country), but seeing them projected back felt cathartic in a way that eludes easy description. The state’s utter failure to provide anything resembling a future for young people feels like a major elephant in the room when covering this record – how are we meant to be surprised by the tragic circumstances that spurred it on when the scourges of emigration, unemployment, and suicide are constantly used as an escape valve for our ruling classes?
The universal nature of this project feels like the ultimate indictment of Irish society, it’s not normal that we can relate so easily to the emotions of pain that underpin it and recognising as such opens the door to building an alternative. As a young person in Ireland you’re raised to see escape as the only way to improve your life, be it from this country, the bottom of a bottle, or everything in general. Anything exciting arrives from beyond the pond, local musicians sing in accents they’d never speak in, and any space for creative work is rapidly snuffed out in exchange for doughnut shop-themed hotels. This specific lack of a future is what makes ‘For Those I Love’ feel so vital – sometimes you need someone to unapologetically point out the obvious in order to make actual change (and sticking around) seem possible.
‘Top Scheme’ is one of the most powerful tracks you’ll hear this year, mainly as it’d make any Blueshirt squirm. In the words of the musician, this track was penned to “directly spit in the face of the state, the banks, and those that continue to socially cripple the less fortunate”, channeling the anger of our generation and rightfully directing it towards those who hold power. “How can we not feel this rage when the therapy costs more than half your wage, and you’re turfed back out the same that very day?”. The anger in Balfe’s performance is both palpable and cathartic, almost as if he was cursing out the men of property in front of their privileged faces.
In the same way that ‘Dear James’ and ‘Joyrider’ cut deep on account of their sheer honesty, ‘Top Scheme’ feels so important as it condenses the daily injustices we’re made witness down into something you and your mates could shout to together in their shitebox of a car. What we’re told to tone down or stop questioning is amplified, exposing how badly the state has failed non-Koh Samui cup veterans and breaking the constant silence endemic amongst young lads when it comes to mental health. However, it feels wrong to view ‘For Those I Love’ solely as a project of mourning or anger – the true impact of this record arrives specifically because it breaks from that, shedding any semblance of cultural cringe or middle-class respectability in order to authentically celebrate the lives sneered at by arseholes in suits. ‘For Those I Love’ stands for authenticity, sticking around, and moving beyond the profit motive – values desperately needed in our deeply cursed timeline.
i have a love, and it never fades
On the 25th of March, I came home from school after two mock orals and used a dodgy VPN to catch an early glimpse of this album, something I feel slightly guilty about. The days following my first listen were spent in genuine awe of how widespread the support shown to the record has been – as I try to finish this draft it’s just after coming out that Balfe came within sixty-seven sales of dethroning Justin Bieber on the Irish Albums Chart, no small feat when you consider his refusal to participate in the music industry it arguably represents. Balfe came out on Instagram to state that he felt slightly disappointed by how close the final chart was, not out of greed but more due to the “serious fucking graft” put in by friends, family, and fanboys to get him there. “I truly feel the love, just wish I could have brought it home as a testament to that love and support”, as he termed it.
However, one of the main things that struck me during this grassroots effort to unseat Bieber was the strangeness of it all – it felt as if ‘For Those I Love’ was becoming the voice of a generation, something that’d presumably be intimidating if you started out with no real audience in mind. This strangeness is something I’ve grappled with a fair bit as I tried to compile this piece – am I inadvertently contributing to those “10 messages a day” about his best friend’s death by gushing over this record? Is it right to draw so much meaning from the work of a private individual? Is there a way to express fandom without it devolving into a mess of obsession and parasocial relationships?
/‘For Those I Love’ broke from the corporate trappings of the music industry, as listeners we must do similar. Fandom has always entailed a certain deification and the development of weird parasocial relationships – it becomes very easy to fall into viewing musicians you enjoy as these distant, perfect beings who never feel horrific, put together a shite track, or experience overwhelm. This idolisation helps sell records and merchandise but actively prevents a full understanding of what makes cool musicians tick – your favourite artists are just normal people putting together cool sounds, something that’s way more exciting than my description implies. Breaking from this habit of idolisation is so important as it simultaneously grounds the artist and opens the door to further creativity for the listener – if the musicians you love could put together something interesting in their shed, what’s stopping you from doing the same?
One of the prettiest images in ‘Into a World…’ arrives roughly fourty-one minutes in, during which Balfe recounts the experience of listening to ‘Jessica’ by Polar Bear with Curran at age fifteen. “I goes to him, ‘wait til you hear this’ […] I forgot, til he died, that he said that was the moment that he chose to rhyme”. I can’t help but feel that the best way to express admiration for Burnt Out or For Those I Love is to go out and do similar – using our obsessive energy to create art that breaks from the bourgeois mould and to actively advocate for change. ‘For Those I Love’ is generation-defining, it’s our moral imperative to create communities and conditions that make it slightly less relatable for those who come next. After all, “it seems sometimes all the love in these songs is not enough. Cause the world is fucked, Top Scheme”.