When I first heard that there was going to be another Swell Season album, I instantly thought of the word once, and not because that was the movie that brought Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, the members of Swell Season, to fame and fortune.
Their union was the centerpiece of the indie smash Once, and the soundtrack that they performed on won an Oscar and sold 700,000 copies, so why wouldn’t they duplicate the success with another go-round?
Here’s the thing - I was really jonesing for a new Frames album instead of Strict Joy, the new Swell Season release. The Frames were Hansard’s old band, and when he sang like his life depended on it while that band threw sonic fury behind him it was a thrill.
Hansard told The New York Times recently that the Frames, which developed a cult following and have been his musical home for two decades, were at a crossroads with the explosion of Once. He chose to take the middle way, asking his longtime band mates to join the Swell Season and tour.
Frames fiddler Colm Mac Con Iomaire told the Times that the Frames were ready to play for broader audiences and escape the confines of their cult status.
“At this point it’s sort of family, and we are a pair of comfortable slippers for Glen to put on,” he said.
“You have to remember that Glen is an overnight success who was 20 years in the making, and I think he took a real delight in sharing it with people he knows and trusts.”
The band is ready to move on from the Frames, and after hearing Strict Joy, I guess I am on board as well.
The Frames displayed a tender side on the song “Lay Me Down,” and that alternative folk vibe is fleshed out within the Swell Season. On their new single, “Low Rising,” the easy folk and bending slide guitar echoes call to mind the Celtic soul of Van Morrision (to hear their impassioned cover of Van’s “Into the Mystic,” log onto swellseason.com).
Flutes and fiddles tango in the background as Hansard loses himself in the music. “I want to sit you down and talk/I want to pull back the veils and find out what it is I’ve done wrong/I want to tear these curtains down/I want you to meet me somewhere tonight in this old tourist town/we’ve got to come up because there’s no further for us to fall/because I feel we’ve had enough,” he sings on the opening track.
And so the analysis begins.
Not since James Taylor and Carly Simon divorced in the seventies has a folk couple’s love life been so scrutinized in the press. Hansard, 39, and Irglova, 21, met in 2001 when the Frames from Ireland were touring Irglova's native Czech Republic. Her father, a concert promoter, invited the band to a party, where 13-year-old Irglova played a Mendelssohn piece on the piano, Hansard said.
Impressed, he invited her to play with him at several other gigs. What began as a friendship and a partnership resulted in a pair of starring roles in Once and a romantic relationship between Hansard and Irglova.
That journey fuels the emotion of Strict Joy. “The romantic thing was great. It was a lovely adventure, but you know, if you're mature enough to sort of look someone in the eye and go, 'You know what, this isn't working' -- which she is and I know I'm getting there -- it actually frees you and allows you to go be mates," Hansard told CNN when asked about their working relationship now.
“That can be a little bit challenging sometimes when we're playing them, but we're so close as mates I think it's okay to report on your emotional sort of self without it being personal. The songs are just designed to be about where you're at personally."
It would take great “mates” to survive the naked honesty on tracks like “In These Arms,” where Hansard pleads for his lady to stay. “You use the truth as a weapon to beat up all your friends/ every chink in the armor/an excuse to cause offense/and the boys in the hallway calling out your name/you are restless and I was somewhat less insecure/so I went running to the road,” Hansard whispers over a gently strummed guitar before Marketa chimes in with the line, “Maybe I was born to hold you in these arms.”
“I just want to be clear, as much as it may be called a breakup album, which I’m totally fine with, we made it according to what we believe it should be made as,” Irglova told The New York Times.
“If I was torn up about the way things had happened and the way things have gone on and turned out to be, it probably would feel very hard to deal with. But our core connection has always been friendship and the music. Like Glen always puts it, you live your life, and the residue of that life you lead becomes the music; the same way it turned from friends to lovers, it somehow managed to turn the other way around at the end of it, which I’m delighted about because I’d hate for it to be drama.”
“It works out really much better because we've got a deeper understanding of who each other are," Hansard told CNN. “’In These Arms’ came together in a day. It started with the central chorus line that I had in my head that was almost like a Johnny Cash refrain. Then I played it for Mar and she was like, 'Oh that's beautiful, let's follow that,' and we sat at the piano and we just knocked out some chords, and I wrote the lyrics on that day, and we recorded it that evening.”
Though Hansard says his “default mood for songs is semi-sorrowful,” he is pleased with his new found success and is trying to get himself to write more about that.
“There's a reason I put 'Low Rising' first (on the album) because it's the one song I felt I got closest to that mood in -- which is like, 'It's all good.' There's nobody on this planet that I enjoy making music with more," he said. "The one thing that's never going to fade, if you like, is this connection musically."Whatever might (or might not) have gone on between the sheets between this couple, the music of Swell Season is beyond swell. They are amassing a series of tour dates for a late fall swing through the U.S. Log onto their website for samples of the songs and for the latest updates.