The Swell Season, Strict Joy
By Wes Jakacki
October 27, 2009
Two years ago, the Swell Season, consisting of folksy Irish rocker Glen Hansard and classical Czech songstress Markéta Irglová , burst into living rooms around the world with the surprise indie musical Once. The film told the story of two struggling musicians finding each other on Grafton Street in Dublin and forming a special bond where they play music together and help each other work through their own relational issues . The music of Once was hailed by many, as the duo even won an Academy Award for Best Original Song for the film’s undeniably beautiful centerpiece, “Falling Slowly”. The year before, the couple met and formed both a romantic and musical relationship before taking on the moniker The Swell Season and releasing their 2006 self-titled debut, which included many of the songs that would soon be featured in Once.
Now, while no longer a couple, the two have become an established musical act and are releasing their sophomore effort, Strict Joy. Ju st like their hit film and debut album, Strict Joy covers the emotional extremes of being in love, and seeking reconciliation from a broken relationship.
While the album covers both extremes of love, the blissful joy and the unbearable sorrow, Strict Joy does err on the side of sorrow. “High Horses” finds the two coming to grips that their relationsh ip is at the point of no return while the song’s composition signals their hel pless freefall. “The Verb” uses its restless rhythm to signal Hansard’s paranoia from a relationship gone sour, and “Two Tongues” features the awkwardly worded statement , “ You’re impossible to really read when you’re talking with two tongues in your mouth. ”
Even through the turmoil , there does seem to be a hint of brighter future. The slow jam opener, “Low Rising” finds Hansard wearing his heart on his sleeve singing poignantly of the need to reconcile from the crashing waves from their relational past . Hansard
speaks to his love on his shortcomings in “The Rain” and looks to the future as the song shifts from minor to major as the rhythm picks up pace and strings crescendo to the song’s blissful peak.
While it has a wonderful sense of fluidity and consistency, Strict Joy begins to sound like a broken record as lyrically it is no different than what Hansard has written in the past, as so much of his songs find him wanting to mend what has been broken. These emotional redundancies cause the album to really bog down towards the end. That’s why songs that err on the sunny side of love serve as such a welcome change, as “Feeling the Pull” , “ In These Arms ”, and “Love That Conquers” pull you away to a better place . “Feeling the Pull” swings with the spirit of Hansard’s Irish musical forefather, Van Morrison, as the jazzy percussion an d swiftly strummed guitar sweep you off your feet. “In These Arms” finds Hansard questioning whether to sacrifice his rambling ways f or what appears to be true love, with Irglová
joining him with the gentle and brooding chorus. “Love That Conquers” serves as the album’s sweetest delight, as the two sing softly together over a rustling autumnal backdrop.
Irglová not only provides the gentle , nocturnal harmonies but shines bright as day when she sings lead on “Fantasy Man” and “I Have Loved You Wrong”. “Fantasy Man” is a mystical lullaby about the perfect guy she just can’t seem to find, and “I Have Loved You Wrong” is a simply sublime stripped-down confessional that is made all the more endearing and honest with Irglová ’s Czech accent.
While lyrically the album does get a bit stale, musically, Strict Joy boasts top notch production from Peter Katis (who has also worked with the likes of the National and Interpol), memorable melodies accented by beautiful harmonies, and wel l- instituted instrumentation from several other musicians including some members from the Frames . Still, besides the two songs sung by Irglov á (“Fantasy Man” and “I Have Loved You Wrong”) and the whimsical “Love That Conquers”, The Swell Season brings nothing on their new album that their folk contemporaries such as Ray Lamontagne or Damien Rice can’t do as well if not better. While Strict Joy does bring a smile or two , there’ s good reason to keep your joy restrained.