Review Summary: Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova return with a new collection of heart-wrenching beauties worthy of album of the year consideration.
After the relative success of the indie film "Once", and the Oscar award winning success of the ballad from the film, "Falling Slowly", this dynamic duo consisting of Glen Hansard of the Frames and Czech singer/songwriter Markéta Irglová were riding high on the wings of exposure. The on-screen chemistry in the film also was completely relevant in their musical chemistry as well with the release of their debut album, under the moniker The Swell Season.
The album was a realistic look and portrayal of the more personal relationship the two shared. Glen Hansard, nearly twice the age of his counterpart, had even once said "I had been falling in love with her for a long time, but I kept telling myself she's just a kid". The love affair coupled with the undeniable talents of both musicians and their incredible songwriting skills made for one of the best releases of the year. Glen Hansard's brash, fragile, and convincing Irish voice and simplistic, softly strummed guitar work coupled with Irglova's innocent, angelic, restrained voice and beautiful piano skills made for an endearing and incredible listening experience.
Now, three years later, Hansard and Irglova are no longer romantically involved, but return with another different outlook on their personal relationship with their latest album, entitled "Strict Joy". The familiar gloom and despair returns, but with a slight hint of optimism sparsely spread throughout. In fact, the album starts in a somewhat upbeat tone with the track "Low Rising". It's a jazzy number played at a slow tempo, complete with horns and a fairly interesting bassline and bluesy guitar riffs not entirely unlike something you'd hear for Glen Hansard's other project, The Frames. Despite the outward appearance of an uplifting track, the lyrics are still obviously representative of Hansard's inner turmoil with lyrics like "I want to sit you back and talk, I want to pull back the veils and find out what I've done wrong".
The general uplifting feel continues with the second track "Feeling the Pull", a short piano driven track with harmonica and Hansard's voice convincingly swooning over top. It's not until the third track "In These Arms" that the duo began to settle into their own niche, and familiar territory. Slow, softly-strummed guitar chords and Hansard's delicate voice carry the verse, and then Irglova's gentle spurts of cascading piano notes and soft vocals complementing him in the chorus singing "Maybe I was born to hold you in these arms". It's a beautiful track, and one of the highlights of the album.
The album maintains that general feel throughout. "The Rain" displays Hansard's genuine songwriting ability in it's finest form. "Fantasy Man" is a primarily acoustic number and the first track on the album that gives Marketa Irglova primary vocal duties. "High Horses" is a genuinely haunting and atmospheric track and a welcome departure from their general formula. The same heartache and despair is relevant, but the song features some incredible vocal passages, then a slow building instrument buildup towards the end that almost explodes into a huge wall of sound and before anti-climatically fading into softness once more as it ends. "I Have Loved You Wrong" is another highlight. A slow, brooding bass line complements another primarily Irglova sung track that carries on hushed and entrancing, until Hansard finally lends his vocal duties in the beautiful climax where both singers repeat the line "Every now and then on my mind" as the music cuts out and their intertwining vocals are all that's left, making for one of the more emotional and heartfelt moments of the album.
"Two Tongues" is easily one of the more emotionally fragile and heartbreaking songs of the album and once again the pair's vocals build to a chorus where you can almost feel bitterness between the two as they deliver their lines. And "Back Broke" closes the album with another hushed acoustic ballad that ends the album on another note of melancholy, fragile despair.
Overall, the album is extremely strong and entrancing. The way their vocals and guitar and piano parts interweave with one another perfectly make it truly pleasant on the ears, and the backdrop of swelling strings and choir vocals spread throughout provide atmosphere and an entrancing effect that pulls you in and won't release it's grasp until the very end. This album is meant for dreary days, but it's easy to find comfort in two people who display heartache so convincingly and with such beauty.