Review Summary: I can see further when I'm with you
A little over a year ago, I wrote of Glen Hansard’s previous album, which I found to represent a staunch symbol for middle aged contentedness, finding refuge in bright horns and obvious influences. It wasn’t a challenging album by any means, but it was one that I was able to find comfort during a year full of turmoil and loss coming at me from all sides. This wasn’t the first time that Hansard’s music formed a sort of mast for me to cling to during a emotional storm; my relationship with his work in The Swell Season has been well documented for all to see.
But to see all that contentedness and hope washed away in such a short year and be replaced by such a vast, aching album as The Wild Willing
was somewhat astounding, and a little bit frightening. Well, first off I shouldn’t discount the hope. There is hope here—now sequestered into small pockets between typhoons of feedback and grisly mutterings, but there is hope. Hope is and always has been essential to Hansard’s music, and in small doses it works better as a glue to hold the gigantic, restless pieces together rather than being the core to every note. Perhaps that’s what makes this album infinitely more interesting than anything Hansard’s ever yet attempted, each note and moment seems to be thinking something separate, each song containing so many monumental contradictions from within that its surprising that songs like the multi-staged post-folk number “Fool’s Game” don’t fall apart at the seems. Hope is that glue, even if it’s not clear until the end of the album.
Indeed, the first and second halves of the album are sonically so divisive that if they were two separate albums it would make just as much sense, but it would be a great detriment to the meaning here. Even without digging nearly as much into the lyrics as I should have, I know that the second half is the answer to the first’s question. Even without knowing what that question is in Hansard’s mind, the way that the calm of tracks like “Mary” soothe the angry fire evident from the very beginning of opener “I’ll Be You, Be Me.” For every restless, violent explosion of sound, there’s an answer to be found later on. It engages, enrages, calms, then carries us into a blissfully warm finale.
The key to this working can be answered by anyone who’s given it a cursory listen: its pure adventurousness. Each song brings something new to the table, for Hansard and most certainly for the genre. Maybe each of these sounds has appeared in folk in some way, but never to the point of effect that they’re used here, pushing boundaries for what the genre can due all while staying true to its roots in human emotion and nostalgic wistfulness. While to breakdown into words how all these sounds are arranged to elicit their designated emotion (a bureaucratic way to put it) would be pointless (I did attempt at it for a while), I should at least provide an example for those curious. Case in point is album highlight “Race to the Bottom,” a restless slice of folk-rock that contains threatening murmurs from Hansard over squelchy percussion, a goddamn catchy guitar riff, teasing horns, and several Middle Eastern influences that weave in-and-out through the track, each shifting the piece in various way like an ever-changing ball of clay, but each coming in in ways so natural that even the strangest sounds feel like they’ve been there from the start of the song.
While it was terrifying to think that such a distressed and conflicted album could come so soon after such a firm flag of happiness from its parent artist, why should it be？Life never stops changing, we never stop growing. I’m certainly a very different person than I was a year ago and I’m sure that Glen Hansard, with this riveting masterpiece of an album, feels no different. I’m sorry Glen. I didn’t know you had it in you, but I should have.