I remember hearing Damen Liebling for the first time at a Food For Thought Café (R.I.P.) open mic night in my early college days. He sat alone at the never-tuned house piano, lifted his hands, and proceeded to blow the audience away with his powerful, beautifully intense vocal sprawled out over passionate neo-classical piano arrangements. I remember being impressed by not only the power of his Bowie-esque howl, but by his dynamics, musically and vocally, and his endearing presence and fervor.
Years later, after many more open mic nights and composition studies at PSU’s School of Music, Liebling has released his debut album, Tonic. At a relatively short 41 min, it’s a big album for its size—the twisted melodies, the enchanting arrangements; the sheer musical journey that is each song turns this quickie into an epic adventure. Backed by a uniquely instrumented (at least by today’s standards of popular music) band of bass guitar, drums, and a simple string trio (violin, viola, cello), Liebling’s piano-driven, romantically inspired ballads sound even more impressive in this setting.
Our first stop is by far the most upbeat moment on Tonic: the opening, power-poppy, time-signature twisting “The Person Next to You,” in which Liebling persistently insists that “You gotta just love the person next to you.” I like this advice, and I like this song—it’s chipper and dark at the same time, pleasantly savory, and melodically interesting. Liebling leads listeners through the bouncy intro, the meter-shifting verse, and the march-like chorus all the way to the very end, where he shows off his vocal aptitude with a gorgeous cadenza.
And just like that, he has our attention, and we're off. And what does this ride have in store? All sorts of fun! The heart-wrenching shuffle of “Same Old, Same Old,” whose lyrics prove imaginative yet painfully on point (“A mind twists itself countless times in a moment like a million little mental suicides”) as well as though-provokingly paradoxical (“Same Old/Always winds up like this/With nothing the same, still it’s much as it always is”). The sway-inducing ballad “If I Promise,” with its emotionally raw and glaringly honest lyrics: “With all torn asunder, all we have’s each other. Would you keep yourself together if I promise to?” Not to mention he appropriately machine-like rhythm and drive of the vigorous “Machinery,” the gripping ferocity and soaring melodies of “Mere Words,” and the delicate, vibraphone-featuring palate-cleanser that is “This Flower.” And it all culminates with the 12-minute, minimalistic voyage of the instrumental title track, which carries the listener through waves of consonance, dissonance, and motific repetition blossoming into a string-saturated ending that brings the album to a comforting, fulfilling close.
With Tonic, Damen Liebling has made a statement. He has bared his musical soul, and he understands his art and its purpose: to tenderly welcome us with meandering melodies that entice, aurally inviting arrangements that warmly grip, and earnest words of regret, uncertainty, and anguish that familiarly tug at our heartstrings. He says what many of us are afraid to say, and touches a deep, dark part of our souls that desperately needs an outlet. And I, for one, am grateful. Hear Tonic in its entirety at Damen's Bandcamp page!