Album Review: The Swell Season - Strict Joy

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The Swell Season - Strict Joy
The Swell Season - Strict Joy (Image courtesy of ANTI- Records)

After years of huge success in his native Ireland with his band The Frames (second only to U2 in popularity there, it's often said), Glen Hansard was finally about to get a taste of international recognition. Ironically, it wouldn't be with the band he'd toiled with for some 15 years, but as an actor — starring in a film about a guy, a girl, and the music they made together. Once also went on to win the Grammy for Best Original Song, "Falling Slowly," written by Hansard (originally for The Frames) and performed by him and his co-star, the Czech singer Marketa Irglova.

As it turned out though, there was much more going on here than a sweet movie and some attractive songs. Hansard and Irglova the couple — both musically and romantically speaking — had come first, and the success of Once only provided a vehicle for their creative partnership to blossom. Prior to being invited to appear as the nameless couple in the film, they had released an album together called The Swell Season, and before long, they began to use that name as a "band" moniker for themselves as well. Since that auspicious debut and the success of the Once project, however, two significant things happened: Glen and Marketa's romantic relationship came to an end, and their professional one clearly changed in ways that may have a little or a lot to do with that breakup. The details of the working partnership remain private of course, but the exterior result is a record that is markedly different from its predecessors. Different as it may be though, it is still a musical revelation in its own way.

Strict Joy is, without a doubt, as grippingly gorgeous a record as anything we've come to expect Glen Hansard to be associated with over the years. And that's part of the ironic disappointment, if there is any, that this record possesses: Marketa Irglova, ostensibly half of the "duo," hardly seems to be providing equal the input. This is Glen Hansard's affair: he sings most of the vocals (when Marketa appears on the vocal lines at all, she's usually in harmony capacity), and the "band" is made up much more than last time with quite a few of his band mates from The Frames. Absolutely none of this has an impact on the power of the final musical product. It's just odd, for something that purports to be a collaboration between two the two people whose likenesses are pencil-drawn on the CD cover. How much of this has to do with the breakdown of the couple's relationship we can only speculate (Irglova does lend her lead vocal to two tracks, "Fantasy Man" and "I Have Loved You Wrong").

Still, if this is a Glen Hansard-led project, the end result is still stunningly cathartic stuff. The predominant atmosphere is one of late night reflection and wistfulness, of fires glowing in distant windows, of whiskey as its warmth begins to swell in the belly (and both the positive and negative release that that can bring). Hansard has mastered the art of the gradual emotional crescendo, and the arrangements here unfold at the rate of a single-malt intoxication each time (an effect that also has a quasi-"northern" quality as well, an oceanic ebb-and-flow mastered by the likes of U2 but also typified by such bands as Sigur Ros).

The lead single "Low Rising" has a distinct Van Morrison-y gospel quality to it, and the effect is certainly satisfying. But the balance of the tunes possess a different kind of unearthliness, like the dizzying whirl of "The Verb" (marked by a backing vocal of multi-Marketas that achieves near sonic levitation) and "The Rain," which takes a Frames-like metronomic pulse as a perfect foundation for a quintessential Hansard vocal.

Perhaps one shouldn't question the vagaries of Strict Joy's conception, but simply revel in its radiant pleasures. While I personally lament the end of a relationship that initially set the stage for such a promising musical partnership, I am quite happy to accept any circumstances that would make such a beautiful record as this to come to be. Period.