The Swell Season Finds Joy in Heartache

Strict Joy is the first album by principals Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova that does not reference any prior recordings that either did in any previous incarnation (including Hansard’s first band The Frames). Once and The Swell Season shared a lot of songs with each other, albeit in different interpretations, as well as a few of The Frames’ later albums. As such, this album was crucial in establishing some new direction for a group of musicians who had essentially been playing a lot of the same material from album to album.

That is not to criticize The Swell Season’s approach. Hansard simply saw a different outlet with Irglova for some of his Frames material along with some new originals on their self-titled debut. Some of that material (probably best represented by “Falling Slowly” and “When Your Mind’s Made Up”) was given a more accessible, fuller representation for the duo’s soundtrack to Once, a movie which was essentially built around a lot of their pre-existing songs. That soundtrack, along with the movie’s surprise critical success and the duo’s show-stealing appearance at the 2008 Oscars, brought Glen and Mar to prominence in America, so it certainly was time to strike while the irons were hot, so to speak.

Strict Joy is a more significant change of pace from Once than Once was from the self-titled debut. While the quieter, acoustic songs are very much in the tradition of what you’ve come to expect from Glen Hansard’s old guitar, they are now reinforced with braver flights of risk, leapfrogging on the periphery of folk/acoustic rock to include electric flourishes, fuller string arrangements and layered harmonies. That is made evident in the first 30 seconds of the album with the lead track, “Low Rising.” The song owes much to Hansard’s fellow Irishman Van Morrison, with its jazzy horn section and soulful vocals.

Songs such as “In These Arms,” “Paper Cup” and the somber finale “Back Broke” all hearken back to the sound template Hansard and Irglova have created over their previous outings with more straightforward arrangements. There are also songs, such as “The Rain” and “Fantasy Man”, which at times sound like they’re going one way but diverge into new territories. “The Rain” bounces all over the place, alternating between quieter, punctuated moments and a thumping rhythm that drives the song to its climax. “Fantasy Man” pulls back on the instrumentation to remind us that underneath all this beautiful music are some pretty astute lyrics, especially when you consider that Irglova is only 21! The song tells “the story of two lovers who danced both edges of the knife.” Heartbreak hasn’t been this revealing since Rumours.

The band hits its stride in the middle of the album with three songs—“High Horses,” “The Verb,” and “I Have Loved You Wrong”—that all build to mesmerizing crescendos complete with resonant harmonies and emphatic, often explosive instrumentation. If “Low Rising” established right from the start that this album was going to show a new side of The Swell Season, this later trifecta decimated any remaining preconceptions. “High Horses” ends with an Arcade Fire-like finale with Marketa playing Regine to Glen’s Win.

“I Have Loved You Wrong” is a showcase for Irglova and just might be the album’s centerpiece, if you’re looking at it from the angle of love gone wrong, particularly between the two leads. Though it’s easily forgotten, Irglova is still only 21 years old and thus her voice has matured significantly over the course of the two albums she’s done with Hansard. She really comes into her own on the song, accompanied by a lumbering rhythm and sharp piano swells, allowing her voice to really carry the five-minute song. At the end when Hansard joins her for the hypnotic bridge that carries the song to its finale, their harmonies lose the instrumentation until just their voices alone repeat, “on my mind.” It’s not pretentious to note the symbolism in this repentant musical arrangement, stripped bare to two former lovers, noting the faint yearning in their thoughts of each other. By no means is the song mournful or regretful; in fact, for a concept of “love gone wrong” and forgiveness, the music and some of the lyrics are actually delivered as an uplifting affirmation.

One of the most obvious developments on Strict Joy is the improvement of the harmonizing between the two leads. The aforementioned maturation in Irglova’s voice allows her to accompany Hansard even more effectively than before. On songs where the two duet, such as “Two Tonques” and “In These Arms”, the duo challenge their synchronization and fill in more of the sound with their voices. And Irglova does a remarkable job changing her vocal deliveries to suit the needs of the song, whether it be the retro acoustic ditty “Love Conquers All” or the ethereal indie rocker “High Horses.”  (Hansard was already adept at this but also steps up his game here.)

What shouldn’t be left unsaid is the accompaniment of Hansard’s old band, The Frames, who have migrated over to The Swell Season, which seems to have allowed the entire band to take many of the aforementioned risks and move away from the simpler moments of previous Swell Season affairs (which had sparser arrangements) to diverse creations and complex, layered structures.

“The Verb” may very well be band’s greatest creation yet (and at this juncture, one of the finest songs of the year by any band). From the second the song takes flight, it yearns to fill all corners of the room with its expression of a relationship’s utterly brutal breakdown. Hansard accentuates the verses with vigor and resent but finds a way to make the equally argumentative chorus inspiring. By the end of the song, he and Irglova build their harmonies to a brilliant crescendo, an apropos swell of emotion that while wounded and distraught, can’t help but make the listener feel some measure of joy.

Extras: The iTunes version of Strict Joy includes an exclusive bonus, “Somebody Good,” which is no throwaway track itself. It also includes the full version of a 2008 concert, which is included in edited form as a bonus CD to the Deluxe physical product. That Deluxe package also contains a one-hour DVD documentary from the same concert (with other footage interspersed). The Deluxe CD is a great bargain for all that it provides. The concert includes some great highlights, including an 8th grade choir backing both “Falling Slowly” and a fun take on the Pixies’ “Gigantic,” as well as Hansard’s brilliant Irish storytelling in between select tunes.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

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