The Swell Season’s Strict Joy

Oct 29 2009 Published by under Film/TV, Music, Personal, Travel


When The Commitments came out in 1991, I was a 23 year old English grad student obsessed with both James Joyce and soul music (especially Otis Redding and Bobby “Blue” Bland), so you know that Alan Parker’s film (based on Roddy Doyle’s wonderful novel) would be a big hit for me.  I saw it twice in the theater, I believe, and each time I had to pinch myself.  How did they know?  I asked myself.  How did they manage to create a movie just for me?

The thing that struck me at the time about the film (I’m talking the film’s narrative now) was the fact that, at the end, all the characters seemed successful (singing in bands, having girlfriends, so on) except for the two guys who started the band in the first place–the guitarist and bassist.  In the final montage, we see them singing for loose change on the streets of Dublin (they call those guys “buskers” in Ireland).  No fair, I thought then and now.  Those guys deserved better than that.

Well, turns out the happy ending would come for at least one of those two buskers, played by real-life musician Glen Hansard.  He had already started his own band, The Frames, at that point, and after the film that band went on to dominate Irish music for over a decade.  They had some popularity in Europe and America, but it wasn’t until 2007’s film Once that Glen Hansard became known to a truly wide audience when his little film won him an Oscar for Best Song.  He and his co-star in the film, Marketa Irglova, developed the songs for Once (which was directed by former Frames bassist John Carney) and began touring as a duo, calling their collaboration The Swell Season.

I should say, first off, that I absolutely loved Once.  Yes, it’s Irish, so that’s no surprise.  In fact, I’m probably more interested in Ireland now than I was back in the early 1990s when I only had a vague understanding of Joyce and why I liked Joyce.  Now that I have a strong grasp of Joyce and the larger picture of Irish literature and history, and now that I have actually visited Ireland on several occasions and seen Dublin for myself, I can say that my enthusiasm for the country is richer than it ever was back in 1991.  Seeing Glen Hansard walking along O’Connell Street just brings back a ton of wonderful memories.  On top of all that, however, I thought the film was an enormous artistic success, as it’s one of the few musicals to actually take the music part seriously enough to dispense with the stupid dancing and simply show the role that music plays in the lives of musicians who would rather perform for each other than talk.  It’s a film about the development of a close, musical friendship, with the focus on the creative process first and foremost. It’s a great film.  I’ve seen it a dozen times, and I never get tired of it.  It doesn’t help that the music in the film is phenomenal.

Well, a lot of other people liked Once, too, and a lot of people bought the soundtrack and became interested in the duo, especially after it was revealed that they were romantically linked.  So the follow-up was bound to be a big deal, and it certainly is.  It’s called Strict Joy, and it comes in a regular version (just the one disk) or a deluxe edition (with the album, a companion concert CD, and a live concert DVD).  I’ve been listening to the album and concert CDs for the past few days, and I have to say…I like the new album, but I really love the concert CD, and its worth getting the deluxe version just to get that CD.

I always felt The Frames had their moments (“Revelate,” “Lay Me Down,” to name a few), but their albums as a whole seemed weighed down with too many mediocre songs.  The Once soundtrack contained mostly wonderful material, but even that work had its clunkers, too.  I’d say Strict Joy is similar.  There are some incredibly strong songs, such as the opener “Low Rising” (in which Hansard channels his inner Van Morrison better than Van Morrison himself), “In These Arms,” and Irglova’s standout track “I Have Loved You Wrong,” among others.  And while there are no real clunkers here, there are also a number of songs that really don’t grab me for one reason or another.  So I like it, but I’m not overwhelmed by the experience of listening to the music.

But the concert CD is an entirely different story.  True, a lot of the songs in the concert are from Once, along with some standout Frames songs like “Lay Me Down” and “Fitzcarraldo,” so the material itself stands on its own.  But the content here, I think, is less important than the presentation.  Glen Hansard is an incredible singer, and I think this comes through live in a way that really can’t be captured in a studio.  There’s a dynamism, a force, behind his voice when he’s in front of an audience that transforms decent songs like “Say It To Me Know” into epics.  He sings like the world is on fire and only his voice can put out the blaze–it’s a fierce, strong, barely-in-control megaphone that only works when it’s a bit out of tune.  That sort of chaos just doesn’t fit on a conventional studio take, where the tunes are modified and the cracks and grit of a real voice is limited and compressed to better fit to a perfectly-designed score.  And the audience knows it, too; listen to the roar of love that bursts out when the crowd cheers after the opening number; that’s an audience that understands exactly what it has heard.

But his singing voice is only part of it. Hansard is also a storyteller, like a lot of musicians.  And like a lot of musicians, he is very comfortable telling little stories before the songs.  Some of the stories are funny (like the one about the kid buying the grave for his girlfriend), and some are truly bizarre (about the “ghostbuster” couple who talk to the souls of 500-year-old children), but the stories all lead to a brief explanation of what each song is about emotionally and the messages that he, as the songwriter, sought to convey when composing it.  That’s different.  Musicians are generally fearful of prose; they want their music to speak for itself.  They’ll tell a story about the song’s origin, but they won’t usually follow it up by stating “this song means x” because that declarative statement limits the power of the song.

Rather than cheapening the songs (by telling us how to listen to them), however, Hansard provides an emotional framework that helps direct our understanding of the songs.  Think of Sister Wendy describing a painting at the Louvre; we can see the painting without her, but she draws attention to details we might overlook, allowing us to seen and appreciate the work in a whole new light.  Hansard does the same thing; we can enjoy his songs without the introductions, but those introductions draw our ears and our minds to ideas and to emotions that make the experience of listening to these songs that much more meaningful.

Here’s an example.  Before the song “That Low,” he tells a funny story about his last visit to Milwaukee (where the concert took place) and then says,

This song is about an idea that you’re in a rut, maybe in a relationship, and you’ve got each other but it’s not great.  The song is about the idea that this one person has to go and walk a new road, and this song was written from the perspective of the person who realizes that they’re about to be left.  It’s for a good reason.  It’s like a double-edged sword.  It ups the ante for you and makes you go, “Okay, what am I doing?”  So this is about the whole idea that a rising tide lifts all boats, and if somebody has to go walk their way then it kind of forces you to think about yourself.  The whole idea of this song is “thread the light, walk the light, speak the light, seek the light, crave the light, brave the light.” The whole idea is “be in the light” because if you’re in the dark, then it’s no use to you.

Songs, like poems, often need a frame of reference before they can be fully understood.  Before I heard his introduction, I thought “This Low” was a sad song about a couple breaking up.  Of course, I didn’t really pay too much attention to the song when I first heard it on The Swell Season’s debut (which came out before Once).  Once I heard Hansard’s introduction to this song, however, I was forced to consider the “light” part and what it meant in the context of the breakup, and I realized that, yes, it’s a sad song about a breakup, but it’s more than that.  The idea he’s conveying here (which is conveyed musically better than it is conveyed lyrically) is the sudden realization that a part of a person’s life has just ended but that this is as much a moment of possibility as it is a moment of despair.  That is, she’s gone, which means that what happens next has yet to be written.  The “shine a light” part is the speaker’s mind opening up to explore the possibilities that have suddenly emerged (rather than retreating into the darkness of despair and sadness).  It’s a beautiful song and a beautiful idea, and Hasnard’s introduction allowed me to better understand and appreciate it.

He does something similar to this with many of the songs, but he’s not alone.  Irglova also introduces several songs, providing her own take on those she has penned.  Sorry I haven’t mentioned her much here, but her role in this group is definitely a secondary one to Hansard; she performs a few songs here, and she shines whenever she sings, but he seems to be the focus of the group, and he’s the one directing things and arranging things and singing most things.  But when she shines, she shines brightly–and in a similar way to Hansard.  Her voice warbles and hems around just like his.  It’s not a powerful voice, but it’s an equally passionate one.  Heck, there’s enough grain in those two voices to fill several beaches.

In all, Strict Joy is good, but the concert CD is a wonderful document of the true power of this musical duo.  So if you’re going to get this, get the deluxe edition.

Update (10/2): The CD version of the deluxe edition doesn’t contain the entire concert, so if you want to hear all the cool stories and stuff from that concert, buy the deluxe edition on iTunes.

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