It’s a rare occurrence these days that I hear an album and feel immediately moved to write about it. I actually haven’t done it since 2016 — usually preferring to just round up my favourite albums at the end of each year. But in this case I feel like it can’t wait; and that people should be able to experience this one as soon as possible. Conversely though, I feel a kind of hesitance to write about For Those I Love; as if by doing so I’m trying to position myself as some kind of authority on— or a guide to — the story of this magnificent album. I am neither; just an admirer, and someone who heard the record and felt something resonate.
David Balfe, the man behind For Those I Love, met his best friend Paul Curran when they started secondary school in North Dublin. They bonded over music immediately and went on to form and play live in numerous bands together over the years. They were brothers and musical partners for 13 years until February 2018 when Paul took his own life. I can’t speak to the circumstances around his passing; how, where, why. But what was slowly born out of the unspeakable grief that David experienced was a musical project; originally intended as therapy, and as a gift for the friends and family around him who’d helped him through the tragedy. He originally intended to press just 25 copies, but those early recipients encouraged him to share it with the rest of the world — and how lucky we are that they did.
What struck me, as I first read about the devastating circumstances that led to the record’s creation, were the parallels to me and my best friends. How we, too, had all met in 2003 aged 13 and awkward. How we’d banded together in a small town with a shared love of music and a longing for something better. Those same boys are my brothers now — accomplices, groomsmen, family. We’ve shared everything. Growing up, David and Paul had obsessed over live performances on Later with Jools Holland just as me and my friends had. (Years later — when David was preparing the release with his label — he’d insisted that a performance on the revered programme was written into his contract so he could honour the dream he and Paul had built together.) It was with many an uneasy shudder that I first made my way through all the lyrics; feeling unfairly lucky to have never experienced the same trauma.
I had read all this and more about the album’s conception, but I wasn’t prepared at all for how much it would come to mean to me; not just the words but the music itself. Sonically it reminds me of the thrill I felt when Jamie xx first starting releasing solo music. It’s largely the pounding electronics that hold the album back from falling into complete despair; repeatedly pulling both the artist and the listener out of a hopeless moment with a resilient euphoria tinged with pain. In this way it perfectly captures what it means to be alive; to weather the impossible and carry on, finding moments of elation unexpectedly as we go. We’re introduced to this dichotomy on the opening song, and also to the mantra that is repeated throughout the record: I Have A Love, and it never fades. It also gives the first taste of the recurrent samples Balfe masterfully weaves through every song; captured from phone videos and voicemails of him and his friends over the years. Sometimes they are distinct — Paul leaving a David a get-well-soon message after an accident — but often they simply place you right there with the boys; the wordless excitement and buzz. When the lyric “a year ago or so I played this song for you on the car stereo in the night’s breeze / this bit kicked in with it’s synths and its keys and you smiled as you sat next to me” it underlines just how key these audio memories are; you’re already there in the backseat with them in that moment.
The hardest song to listen to is the centre point; ‘The Myth / I Don’t’ which is really the only song here where Balfe allows the full colossal weight of his sadness to flow, unbridled into the music. The beat chops up a grime song with 70’s funk to twist them into a paranoia-soaked nightmare backdrop. Lyrically, David details the constant torture of being left behind when someone you’re irrevocably tethered to leaves for somewhere you can’t follow them. Every line is like boot to the stomach, but for me the starkest passage is when he briefly references the terror he felt that his friend’s passing would cause a domino effect among his surviving friends. He doesn’t need to go into further detail about the fear but it stays with you regardless:
“And your whole life is drunk or fucked up
And every time your phone pings, you panic
Cos you’re terrified of what’s on the other end
It’s happened again”
Elsewhere, on ‘Top Scheme’ takes dead aim at the systems and inequality firmly in place that lead young people to give up hope in the future — and who could blame them? He seems to break the narrative of the album for under 3 minutes to savagely dismantle “the state, the banks, and those that continue to socially cripple the less fortunate without ever looking at the world we have been forced to live and grow within.” You can hear just how much skin he has in the game here; having grown up in some of the most deprived areas in Europe. Along with other references to murder and bent police dotted throughout the album; what initially seem like pauses from Paul gradually reveals themselves to be all-too tied to his story and so many like him:
“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?”
All that said, of the album’s 9 songs the majority triumph in celebrating life and love. The life-affirming horns and twinkling xylophone that makes ‘Birthday / The Pain’ into a party, the gorgeous Barbara Mason sample that acts as the core of ‘To Have You’ — In fact, the central theme that jumps out at me is not that of someone taking their life, or even of grief. Instead, it’s prevailing brotherly love — beyond simple camaraderie, beyond even death. It’s well known that our young men have not been raised with the tools to express their affection to each other openly and sincerely. This is not just a shame, but dangerous; a constant spectre played back to us when we see the statistics. For Those I Love recognises this, and turns it all on its head. There are countless references to football, boy-racing, vandalism. But bigger than all of it, stronger and more powerful than any muscle is just how fierce the platonic love between friends really is.
The album grabbed me immediately from the first time I put it on. But it wasn’t until the second play-through that I realised quite how powerful it was. I’d put the whole thing on while I was out on a long run in the Swale countryside, closer to France than to my oldest mates. With nothing else to distract me, the lyrics cut through me and when the album’s crescendo burst forth just as I approached the estuary I had to swipe tears from my eyes. ‘Leave Me Not Love’ is the most successful closing song to an album that I’ve heard for a really long time. It has a pounding bass line that you can almost hear being pummelled out of a bass guitar and a distorted amp. Balfe runs us through all the most important things that he’s covered across the album; creating the perfect elegy from all the flames and blood over the previous 40 minutes of music. The songs builds and builds into a frenzy where we hear David finally admit that, while he knows the love of his friends and family will save him; the scars will never heal, questions will go forever unanswered. At its peak, he literally bellows the lines;
“And there’s shame
Dear fucking god there’s shame
It’s that Dear James, excess pain that stays
WHAT HAPPENED TO MY BEST MATE?
I HAVE A LOVE
AND IT’S FULL
Which then gives way to an extended sample of a a hushed, mid-70s folk song with that same aggressive bassline still hammering over the top of it as if beyond the control of the artist. After the cathartic release of Balfe’s final words on the album, it actually sounds like his heartbeat; elevated from the physical exertion of bearing out this raw emotion. It’s the perfect way to end a record whose creator holds nothing back, leaves nothing unsaid. It truly feels like a privilege to be allowed to witness the man’s journey, and it’s because of it that a few weeks after it came out I visited home to see my boys; hugging them tighter than ever.