Review Summary: A rare and beautiful evolution from traditional Irish troubadour folk
It only took Glen Hansard one album to convince me that he’s a genius. I’m not well-versed on The Frames or The Swell Season – the two bands that preceded his solo career – nor was I aware of his 2007 rise to fame through “Falling Slowly”, his contribution to the Irish movie Once
with Markéta Irglová. I’d heard of Hansard plenty of times, but never bothered with the three albums that led up to this one. And frankly I don’t care about any of that, because the only thing that matters to me right now is The Wild Willing
– this gorgeous, epic, experimental indie-rock tour de force that came out of left field to quickly become one of the best records of 2019.
The Wild Willing
floats in on the acerbically whispered ‘I’ll Be You, Be Me’, a subdued and brooding slow-burner that flickers with the intensity of a classic Brand New or Bright Eyes track. As it ramps up in intensity, strings join the mix to heighten the emotion, and then Hansard capitalizes on the momentum with fuzzy electric guitars and a haunting incantation of “ahh’s” that course through the melody like wisps of smoke. It’s the ideal opener, and it sets the tone for the kind of dimly-lit crooners that populate much of the record. Hansard then delves into sullen piano balladry on ‘Don’t Settle’, a dejected, Nick Cave reminiscent tune that somehow feels even more impressive than the opening track. About halfway through its six minute runtime brass horns join the mix, and Hansard shouts into the surrounding emptiness like Roger Waters on ‘In The Flesh.’ It’s this transcendent moment where he doesn’t sound much like a folk artist at all…nope, two songs in, Glen Hansard is more like a modern day rock hero.
The urgency of this record continues to pummel listeners on ‘Fool’s Game’, a moment that at first seems to be posturing itself as the album’s first tranquil song – but then, a little more than three minutes in – erupts into splendor. Clashing guitars, drums, cymbals, and choral harmonies explode out of the woodwork in a way that is totally unexpected yet somehow entirely appropriate within the context of the song. The outro is then graced by a lovely female guest vocal spot, singing in Iranian, as ‘Fool’s Game’ trickles into the distance. If you’re a cynic like me, you’ll find yourself wondering when the abundant creativity will finally plateau – something that doesn’t happen on ‘Race to the Bottom’, a jazzy number that features an infectious brass hook in between Hansard’s bleak passages, such as: “Even the gods as they gaze down on us, know that there's no one to be saved among us - they keep turning away, turning away.” This morose outlook is one that shrouds much of The Wild Willing
; it’s almost an apocalyptic album in the sense that the dejection and hopelessness is so dense that it can be felt whether or not you analyze the lyrics. It’s in the air, all around, like a black cloud. The mood is driven home even further when you stop to realize what he’s singing about, such as on ‘The Closing Door’, when he chants, “…the end of people.” It’s chilling to the core.
Things do take a decidedly calmer approach across the record’s latter half, existing almost as a dark vs. light
yin and yang concept. ‘Brother’s Keeper’ feels more like the Damien Rice-core Irish troubadour that I was expecting the first time I delved into The Wild Willing
; pristinely plucked acoustic guitars and chime-like pianos share a gorgeous five minute space that feels like a ray of sun beaming into the valley of death. ‘Mary’ is a heart-warming ode to love, as Hansard sings, “I've never heard such a melody, as when you address me” to a bare atmosphere that is abuzz with swelling strings. The quaint, piano-driven delicacy of ‘Threading Water’ and ‘Weight of the World’ gives one the sensation of sinking into a shimmering pool; there’s a serene calmness throughout that exists in beautiful contrast to the austerity of the album’s first half. As the whole experience winds to a close, the lengthy, winding ‘Good Life of a Song’ ties everything together with a silver lining: “Let them see we came as equals, let them know we weren't afraid…and they'll feel your love of music, in every note you play.” Then, the final knot is tied on the glassy smooth ‘Leave a Light’ – a bare bones ode to moving on that is centered around Hansard’s voice and sparse acoustic guitar plucks, accented by timely violin flourishes.
My lack of context with respect to Hansard’s greater career precludes me from making exclamatory remarks about The Wild Willing
’s standing within his own discography – but I can
confidently assert that the record, independent of his own canon, is a standalone masterpiece. It’s the kind of album capable of captivating a new audience; an evolution from traditional Irish troubadour folk that is both dark and masterful. For the unwitting, The Wild Willing
is a glorious blindsiding – a wake up call to this artist's creative chops. I’ll never be caught off guard by Hansard again; albums this
good just leave a permanent impression.