I first became aware of David Balfe, the man behind For Those I Love, through the tweets and Facebook posts of bands like The Murder Capital and Fontaines DC. So I had certain expectations as I pressed play on single ‘Birthday / The Pain’. But within only a few seconds of the song it was clear that the link between these artists was geographical rather than musical. Dubliner For Those I Love doesn’t deal in the same angry, aggressive post punk as his friends and compatriots in those amazing guitar bands. Instead, ‘Birthday / The Pain’ offers up a slice of a dancefloor none of us have seen for a year, horns that come out of nowhere, and a spoken word delivery that pulls you in with both its accent and its poetry. I was immediately in awe of this track. I don’t really listen to dance music, and the beat was much more house-influenced than anything in my record collection, but there was something so enthralling about Balfe’s words. I could tell, even on first listen, that there was something darker on top of those cheery and infectious beats.
That turned out to be true. Once the self-titled album arrived it was evident that it had one focus at its centre. Balfe lost a very close friend to suicide during the making of this album and seems to have gone back in, scraping away the original versions he was working on to create something that better reflected the grief he was experiencing. There is a particularly affecting moment in opening track ‘I Have A Love’ when Balfe breaks the fourth wall to talk to his lost friend – telling him ‘A year or so ago, I played this song for you on the car stereo in the night’s breeze / This bit kicked in with its synths and its keys / And you smiled as you sat next to me.’ This feels totally heartbreaking to hear, and is one of the many moments across this album that lift it above its status as set of dancefloor/spoken-word bangers.
If you’re finding it hard to get your head around what this album might sound like right now, the closest comparison I can offer you is The Streets. Balfe even references them in the lyrics of ‘Top Scheme.’ And every review I have read of For Those I Love so far has mentioned the venerable Mike Skinner. But it is also a bit of a lazy comparison. The main thing that links them is the fact that they lean closer to spoken word than rap, but I would say that Skinner is closer to hip-hop that Balfe is. Both are hugely unique artists that kind of defy definition, but while Skinner often found some pop moments on his albums to help him reach out to a wider audience, that is almost totally missing here. And I’m yet to decide whether that is a good or a bad thing.
Because as yet, even after twenty or so listens to For Those I Love, I am yet to make up my mind how I really feel about the album as a whole. I admire it for sure. The moments I have already mentioned are incredible, and Balfe has a superb way with words – there is something really special about the way he faces up to grief across this album. And on some of my listens I have been engrossed across the whole piece. I also think that if Balfe had done a Skinner and added a pop track like ‘Fit But You Know It’, the album would’ve lost all of its power. But on the whole I have never felt the album calling me, I’ve never felt desperate to listen to it, even if I have been impressed by it when I’ve forced myself to put it on. It doesn’t pull me back like most of my favourite releases do. It’s hard for me to say where I will end up with this album once I’ve taken a break from it. Maybe, the next time I listen, it will finally push itself over the line from good to great. Or maybe it’ll slide off my radar completely. But whatever the end result for me personally, I have to once again praise this album for its poetry and its purpose. You should all give it a few spins for sure.
Words by Fran Slater