Right Words, Unlikely Places

Nealo

Right Words, Unlikely Places

Dublin rap artist Nealo's debut album 'All the Leaves Are Falling' reflects poetically on suburban monotony, social struggles, travel and time passing. Andrea Cleary reviews.

Change starts with a catalyst – a walk around the same neighbourhood with the same people, talking about the same things – until one day something triggers a feeling that you need to break out of the cycle. For Nealo (aka Neal Keating), it was some barrels of cooking grease behind a Chinese takeaway in Clonsilla, and the ensuing tedious conversation about them, that did it. ‘You know when you’re living in a housing estate when you’re young? Everything is burning time’ Nealo says on the album’s opener ‘deSilla Interlude’. ‘Tubs of grease? What the fuck are we talking about? When are we gonna get out of here?’

It’s a perfect introduction to the themes of the album; the monotony of poverty, the desire to go somewhere, anywhere, other than here, the feeling that great things are possible if only you can make a change. Nealo is immediately friendly, funny, fed-up and dreaming. His distinct ability to find the right words – even in an off-the-cuff, stream of consciousness voice note – is staggering. Few artists can make the monotony of a housing estate sound beautiful, but Nealo’s cadence is his own. 

Nealo charts change through poetic, wrenching prose. The decision to leave Ireland for Vancouver is borne not out of a longing for adventure, but desperation for something different in the backdrop. Over the familiar sound of an old dial-up tone, ‘Under The Weather (Old Obituaries)’ deals with the rising cost of housing in Ireland, suicide rates in young men, and ‘scraping pennies just to pay the road tax on my car’. 

Though Nealo’s narrative is at the centre of the work, he is in good company. Irish singer-songwriter Molly Sterling lifts ‘Let Your Dreams Collect Dust Until You’re Desperate’ with a ghostly, heart-wrenching chorus, as well as a devastating verse on the album’s title track. Dublin-based instrumental group INNRSPACE brings lush twinklings of jazz piano and smooth lounge to ‘Angel On My Shoulder’, a soundscape that sits beautifully alongside Nealo’s poetic flow. There’s no one sound that permeates the record – smooth soul, improvisational spoken word, and gentle, sombre beats serve each memory as they come, while ethereal soundscapes underscore moments that are suspended in time and space. 

On another interlude – ‘ATLAF Interlude’ – Nealo’s voice is far-off and ghostly. Rich piano chords move through a space in which time seems to stand still. ‘I just got back, all the leaves are falling on my home’, he repeats – ‘I’m on my own’. It’s a beautiful moment of pause – an agonising reminder that time still passes whether or not you’re there to see it.

Later, when the voice-notes return in ‘Red Tree Interlude’, Nealo recalls a tree that was visible from the balcony in his apartment. On a November day – his last in Vancouver – all the leaves had fallen from the tree. If there is a fourth wall in music, Nealo breaks it here: ‘This is what I’ve been trying to talk about all along. I named it “All The Leaves Are Falling”. I wrote that song a year ago’. It’s a moment that might have come from an interview after the fact, a reflection on the work long after its completion. But here it is embedded in the work itself – a testament to the artist’s perpetual reflection on the poetic moments of life. All The Leaves Are Falling is full of these moments, where beauty is found in the most unlikely places.

To purchase All the Leaves Are Falling on vinyl, visit: https://nealoofficial.bandcamp.com/

Click on the image below to listen.

Published on 9 December 2020

Andrea Cleary is a freelance music and culture writer based in Dublin.

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