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Sonder - Dermot Kennedy

Dermot Kennedy is an Irish singer-songwriter whose body of work encompasses the pop, rock and folk genres. His latest album, Sonder, is named after the feeling of realising the complexity of other peoples' lives despite them being external to your individual experience.

This month, we had two of our writers review Sonder - did they think it conveyed the complexity of Kennedy's lived experience, or did they stay feeling like the main character? Read on to find out...

Close up photograph of Dermot Kennedy on  the album cover for Sonder. He has a purple buzzcut and is looking off to the top left corner.

Tom Scudamore

Facts: I’ve never heard of this fella; and listening to singer-songwriters take me back to my teen years wallowing (hi, Paolo Nutini).

Vital question: do solo musicians go into this business knowing the game, or are they adding to it unconsciously? You know their drill: appeal to us via relatable, arms-length songs about how we’ve only got tonight, how it sucks to feel torn between two people, and how hard being alive is. It’s all the same, sorry. There’s a reason we nod in clubs to these anthems that try to patch up what sucks for us at that minute. Dermot Kennedy: you got me thinking about this, is all I’m saying. Sadly, your Sonder is just another album in a long production line, with few unique qualities.

Sure, ‘Kiss Me’ swims around in itself for a minute, and any tries for optimism generally succeed. ‘Something to Someone’ had me wanting to dance (I couldn’t: dislocated knee!) and there are a few melodies and bridges that take this collection up a notch.

Turning tunes and giving them new dimensions can do wonders – if only these pieces could stand as themselves by being more adventurous in their lyrics and structure. I’ll tell you the effect of limited song writing: it’s so surface level, it feels disingenuous. Yes, there’s power in allowing for ambiguity and interpretation, for the nodding clubber to find a way to make a song about them. ‘Innocence and Sadness’, ‘Already Gone’, however: vulnerability is teased but gosh do these journeys into depth stop before we even get going. A great shame as you can’t deny Kennedy has soul. If we were discussing an artist keen to shake himself and the genre up, it’d be another story.

Missing variety. Lacking imagination. Overbearing slickness that has me shaking my head penning this, so keen for a sound I’ve never heard before. No, detail, breadth and danger aren’t strengths here, but there is heaps of sincerity, and the whole thing reminded me of James Arthur’s first hits which...compliment, I guess!?

To go along with the need for invention and spice, I’m calling for Kennedy and others to bring it, because otherwise they will just fall into a long line of rookies who never made the big time. You may just have come here wanting to know whether to add Sonder into your Spotify playlists and to that I say absolutely go for it. This milky easy-listening kind of stuff just isn’t exciting to review. If I’m not pulled in on the first track, dazzled or curious for what’s next, it’s a long hour ahead for me.

So, to the likes of Kennedy, some advice: consider how cliché you sound, what this does for your brand and whether you’re just coasting through song-writing. And finally: when you realise how much your next album depends on edge - bring it.

Get loose and dangerous. Have fun out there. A party is what we come for.

A longshot photograph of the seaside. The tide is out, and there is hillside to the left of the sands. There are no people and the clouds are graying overhead, giving a sombre mood to the picture. 'James Arthur' and 'Sins By The Sea' is in white text in the top left corner.
Tom compares Sonder to the early work of James Arthur, the first album of whom is pictured above.

Becky Demmen

Initially, I was surprised by the tone of this album. Sonder is one of my favourite words in the English language (big claims, I know!), and with this came a clear idea of the texture, colour and shape of the word and how it would sound. My petulant brain was attached to my interpretation of the word and I felt defensive when I started listening. I want to clarify that this is not a bad thing, just a differing artistic exploration to mine. It didn’t feel like my sonder - but, of course, it isn’t.

Although I wasn’t getting anything from the album at first, I had it accompany me through my Saturday chores and found myself swaying along in my kitchen. It started to make more sense to me. I began to hear the texture and palette I was looking for, especially in the more pulled-back simpler feeling songs like ‘Any Love’ and ‘Innocence and Sadness’. These are where I can feel the depth of sound and texture.

That being said, songs with far more pop-y layers and instrumentalisation, ‘One Life’ and ‘Better Days’ for example, also explore the themes in interesting ways. I especially enjoyed ‘Better Days’, which reached beyond the singer’s internal world and connected with me more than others on the album. ‘Another Gone’ is another standout for me. As you can tell, the second half of the album is where I really connected. Again, I enjoyed the more stripped-back feeling, the production and it feels like the texture and colours that match what sonder means to me. It is here that Kennedy really reckons with the idea of someone else’s inner world and how it fits with his.

I also enjoy Dermot Kennedy’s voice - I’m definitely partial to crooning, textured male voices telling me how they feel! He fits that bill, and the Irish lilt adds a lovely musicality that flows through my brain. He clearly understands song-writing. The words were easy for me to pick up on, and I found myself singing in my head when I wasn’t listening to the album. This is something quite big for me, as it often takes many, many listens to latch onto lyrics. He is doing something very right here.

Does it explore the theme? It does, not in the way I predicted it would, but it does. It tackles a realisation that if the world isn't just your reality, then we have to accept that it's about everyone else's reality too. There are stories of things not going the way he wanted and trying to understand and accept this. Maybe things weren't the same for someone else. We may work hard to reshape ourselves to fit our perception of what someone else wants and then feel the pain of being incorrect.

When writing this review, I talked to my partner about my initial problems with the album. He pointed out, hilariously, that to get to the point where I enjoyed this album, I also had to acknowledge that sonder exists and that for others. However, we have a shared meaning of the word, and it feels different for us in terms of texture, colour and shape. That feels fitting.

Edited by Florence Strang Boon.


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