Under the name For Those I Love, Irish producer David Balfe marks his debut with a particularly intimate tribute to the bosom friend who took his own life three years ago. On the album – which sounds like the course of an illegal rave – Balfe uses voicemails and samples from his personal archive to share his views on mental health, economic inequality, and platonic love with everyone who wants to hear.
‘I Have a Love’ runs for about three and a half minutes when David Balfe uses a bridge in the album opener to zoom out and indicate the origin of the song. "A year ago or so I played this song for you on the car stereo in the night's breeze," he remembers, in a thick Irish accent. “This bit kicked in with its synths and its keys, and you smiled as you sat next to me.” You sat in the front, Balfe says, Gilly in the back. We drove one hundred and forty. "The other boys stomping feet, and me in utter disbelief at the joy from the break in the beats."
The anecdote summarizes how most of the productions on For Those I Love came about. After a death in his family, Balfe inherits a small Renault Clio. The car becomes a symbol of independence and maturity. Together with his group of friends, he eagerly uses it: late into the night the gang drives around in Coolock, a working class suburb north of Dublin, with the dance programs of the Irish channel Raidió Na Life on the speakers. Later on, Balfe mainly plays CDs that he has burned himself. Between tracks by Omar Souleyman (especially ‘Leh Jani’ is a favourite) and DJ Rashad, he sometimes secretly puts in one of his own attempts. When his friends react positively or complain that they can't find the track on Shazam, Balfe knows he's onto something.
One of those friends is the ‘you’ Balfe talks about in ‘I Have a Love’: Paul Curran, who is mentioned by name at the end of the song. The pair befriended each other in first grade when Balfe saw Curran carrying a badge from At The Drive-In, one of the bands his cool uncle recommended to him, on his backpack. Again and again, Balfe and Curran watch At The Drive-In's infamous show on Later… With Jools Holland in 2000, when the Texan band left Robbie Williams in utter bewilderment. From that moment on, the duo sees a performance on Holland’s show as the highest attainable gig.
Curran develops into a promising poet and filmmaker, but he also remains a musician. Over the years, Balfe and Curran feature in hardcore bands such as Plagues, The Branch Becomes, and Burnt Out. The pair are inseparable and work almost incessantly on all kinds of projects in Balfe's mother's shed. When a video clip has to be made, Balfe picks up the camera himself. And when smoke bombs are needed, Balfe and Curran make their own with aluminum foil and ping-pong balls. The approach is piecemeal, but around 2016 Burnt Out is regarded as a unique force within the local music scene, a precursor to the Irish guitar bands that are currently making waves.
In February 2018, the band comes to an end when Paul Curran takes his own life at the age of 27.
Curran's death sends a shockwave through the Irish underground. In 2019, the post-punk band The Murder Capital dedicate their debut When I Have Fears to Curran. The record is named after a poem by John Keats, one of Curran’s favourites. Although (the thought of) death is rampant in any case on The Murder Capital’s album, the heartbreaking 'On Twisted Ground' especially feels like a direct reference to the tragedy that took place in Coolock. “Oh, my dearest friend,” frontman James McGovern sings, “how it came to this. With your searing end, into the abyss.”
In his mother's shed, David Balfe keeps working on the demos that he played to his friends in the car, but never finished. The grief over his friend's death seeps into everything he makes, but it doesn't paralyze him: in no time, Balfe has written over seventy songs. After a period of trying to find his way out of binge drinking, music helps him to grieve. ‘Stories to tell never breed sadness. They treat it', he sings in 'The Shape Of You', one of the nine tracks that eventually ended up on For Those I Love. "And if you can grasp it, own it, deal with it, you can heal with it."
On For Those I Love, Balfe goes through various stages of grief, both musically and lyrically. The record is a nuanced document in which Balfe often looks back, but does not drown in the past. He wears his heart on his sleeve, but he doesn’t become overly sentimental. The hardcore of Burnt Out & co. has disappeared, although Balfe's solo music has the same drive at times. Balfe takes some distance from the music he and Curran made together, but is inspired by the type of electronic productions that also belong to their shared past. His songs - reminiscent of Jamie xx, Burial and Mount Kimbie - are sometimes melancholic, at other times ecstatic or just pitch dark. One moment Balfe is full of adrenaline, seemingly on the doorstep of the warehouse rave like the one he sings about in 'I Have a Love', the next he trudges home in the first rays of the sun, the listener by his side. The darkness lurks in a song like 'Top Scheme', which was named after a joint project by Balfe and Curran that never saw the light of day. On the shortest track of the album, Balfe directs his anger at the world that treats people with mental and/or economic problems as numbers, as nothing more than part of the statistics. ‘How can we not feel this rage? When the therapy costs more than half your wage', asks Balfe, who saw firsthand how poor suburbs like Coolock suffered from the economic crisis that hit Ireland around 2008. ‘It sometimes seems all the love in these songs, is not enough. ‘Cause the world is fucked.’
Fortunately, that notion does not take over on For Those I Love. The album does not only feel like a processing of death, but also like a celebration of life. Balfe makes an effort to cram as much detail as possible into 45 minutes, trying not to forget a single part of his life with Curran. In his lyrics he refers to Grogans, a pub in the heart of Dublin, and to the Irish cult band A Lazarus Soul. There’s a lot of pride in these references, you can tell. Pride of Curran, but also of the places where Balfe and he grew up. Following, for example, The Murder Capital’s James McGovern, but also Fontaines D.C. singer Grian Chatten, Balfe refuses to weaken his accent. This is a record from Ireland, and everyone should know that.
Balfe is not the only one speaking on For Those I Love: readings by Curran and voicemails from other friends are incorporated in the layered productions, as are several recordings that refer to Shelbourne FC, the football club that Curran supported, despite mixed results and financial malaise. In fact, the intro to 'Birthday / The Pain' is a recording of the first game after Curran's death, when the club's core supporters group paid tribute to Curran, and Shelbourne FC ended up beating Longford Town 3-2 in the third minute of extra time.
Shelbourne was primarily Curran's club. Balfe often had to choose in the past: do I spend my tenner on a concert ticket or on football? Since Curran's death, however, Tolka Park, home of the Coolock Reds, has become somewhat of a religious haven for Balfe. He understands more and more how football was the same outlet for Curran as music. He visited the game against Longford and did not miss a game of 'his' team until the pandemic hit. His life seems to be increasingly dominated by Curran's. He even took a Shelbourne FC flag with him late last year as he fulfilled the dream he and Curran had cherished for years. At the end of an impressive performance in Later… with Jools Holland, Balfe proudly and determinedly showed the flag to the camera, while images of friends adorned the studio wall behind him.
It is typical of For Those I Love. When Balfe had finished his record, his initial idea was to have only twenty-five copies made, to share with his friends. For Those I Love. In the end, Balfe decided to release the album to the public, to introduce Paul Curran to people who didn’t know him and his art. He does so with full conviction: when Balfe concludes his story, the listener properly has the experience of knowing Curran, to some extent. Not half as good as Balfe himself, of course, but still. In the melancholic final song 'Leave Me Not Love', in which the music and lyrics of 'I Have a Love' resound, Balfe refers to 'Drive', one of Curran's most beloved poems. "You lifted us from the mundane. And then you wrote 'Drive' and immortalized our right to life.'
In the clip of 'Drive', Balfe and Curran are sitting together in the Clio. Balfe is behind the steering wheel, Curran is reading. It's 2014. And unknowingly, Paul Curran does indeed capture exactly why For Those I Love exists and is shared with the outside world.
From the first time I saw Michael Owen ruining a goalie’s clean sheets,
Or read ‘When I Have Fears’ by John Keats
Or put ‘Disorder’ by Joy Division on fifty times on repeat
I knew there was a reason,
A great upheaval,
Redeeming a feeling so primeval to my very being
That I burned to do something great.
And that of a moment of art,
A moment parked in a car that sparks a poem or even just a flow
Is worth more than half the world will ever know.