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The music of David Balfe may draw on a range of identifiable influences—the house-tinted EDM of Jamie xx, James Blake‘s conscious electro R&B, the post dubstep of Mount Kimbie, and The Streets’ gritty UK garage beats are all notable inspirations that are dexterously blended across these nine tracks—but from the moment the thirty-year-old north Dubliner speaks the opening lines of For Those I Love, it couldn’t be clearer that you are about to enter a singular listening experience.
A project born as much of grief as love and friendship (Balfe’s best friend and fellow musician Paul Curran died during the early stages of the album’s creation back in 2018), For Those I Love presents a series of intensely personal, darkly cathartic tales of youth set amongst the communities of Coolock and Donaghmede on the north side of Dublin. The raw power of Balfe’s spoken word delivery and his deeply intimate narratives are set to vibrant electronic palettes that simultaneously recall In Colour, with their poignant yet undeniably danceable club beats, and The Weeknd’s House of Balloons mixtape in slower R&B/trip-hop turns—two of the most iconic solo debuts of the last ten years, and company which Balfe is deservedly mentioned alongside on the basis of these forty-six minutes.
As consistently pristine as the production is throughout, the true strength of the record undoubtedly lies in Balfe’s slam poetry. The hard-hitting truths that the Dubliner spits and snarls as he fearlessly relays tales of the poverty, violence and death that surrounded him from a young age are best encapsulated in ‘You Live/No One Like You’, the album’s ferocious climax. David Balfe is at his poetic zenith for the entirety of a breakneck six-minute thesis that traverses the life of a mid-twenties Dublin male, paying a touching tribute to the family and friendships that have defined Balfe’s life as well as inspirations and outlets such as Joy Division, John B. Keane and his beloved Shelbourne F.C. (with a surprisingly moving recording of the Tolka Park crowd bringing the track to a life-affirming close).
It’s this moment that, paired alongside preceding standout ‘Birthday/The Pain’ with its Cure-like juxtaposition of upbeat music clouded by pitch black lyricism, best defines the blazing intensity and unchecked emotion of For Those I Love and its crucial message of unity and strength through grief. In many ways, this is a brave record for its unabashed wearing of bruised heart on sleeve, as Balfe furiously preaches of love and light over pain and darkness, with such abandon and vulnerability that is rarely witnessed in the Irish electronic, dance and hip-hop movements—and even rarely across these genres in a larger global context.
David Balfe has stated that he listened to the record himself on a daily basis as a way of dealing with his own pain throughout the creation process, and the knowledge that this will be a similarly comforting and transformative listening experience for a generation of Irish teenagers and young adults in years to come brings the tragic circumstances that birthed For Those I Love full circle, providing an outlet for those in need and hopefully gifting some inspiration for young musicians to follow in Balfe’s footsteps.
It’s guaranteed that you aren’t going to hear another record like this in 2021, but don’t be surprised to find an upcoming collective of Irish artists in the next decade that are as indebted to David Balfe as he may be to Mike Skinner et al. For Those I Love feels like an influential album, one destined for cult status as it grows in age and stature—for now, it stands proudly as one of the most striking and triumphant debuts of the year, a powerful memoir by an essential new artist in Irish music.